USAS’s perspective: “When workers’ rights are under attack, what do we do, stand up, fight back”

By Catie Byrne, Staff Writer

In print April 15, 2015

VFprotestpic

Photo courtesy of Catie Byrne. Featured from left to right are Reba Sikder, a garment worker and survivor of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, Aleya Akter, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation and United Students Against Sweatshops protesters.

Last Thursday, UNCG United Students Against Sweatshop (USAS) organizers and organizations gathered outside of VF Corporation’s headquarters in Greensboro to protest and deliver a petition demanding VF sign on to the Accord. After being denied entrance into VF headquarters and a meeting with a VF executive, protesters continued to raise their signs and chant, “When workers’ rights are under attack, what do we do, stand up, fight back!” as a police officer escorted them off of VF property.   

Julia Wang, UNCG student organizer and International Campaigns Coordinator for United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and one of the organizers who led these chants, expressed her dissatisfaction with prior meetings with VF representatives. “We want to talk to the CEO, he is the one who ultimately has the power to change this.”

The “this” Wang refers to are her grievances with VF corporation’s practices, outlined below in a letter she sent to The Carolinian.

Wang cites research derivative of Northfacedeathtraps.com, Bangladeshaccord.org, Bangladeshworkersafety.org, workersrights.org, koreatimes.co.kr, Nytimes.com, Laborrightsblog.typepad.com, Laborrights.org, Usas.org, Newsweek.com and Aflcio.org, which are cross referenced with information from the official Alliance and Accord document agreements.

“End Deathtraps Campaign Overview and Timeline

“Background: today, millions of garment workers work in factories that function as literal death traps. Just look at the numbers. Since 2005, more than 1,800 Bangladeshi garment workers have died in preventable factory fires and building collapses. Three of the largest industrial disasters in the history of the garment industry – the Tazreen Fashions factory fire (112 workers dead), the Ali Enterprises factory fire (315 workers dead), and the Rana Plaza collapse (1,132 workers dead) – all have occurred in the last two years alone, as the frequency and intensity of industrial disasters in the garment industry accelerates rapidly.

“These brands and retailers place cut-throat price and delivery pressure on factory owners in Bangladesh, who meet these demands by paying one of the lowest wage rate in the world of $68/month, firing workers who organize unions to improve their working conditions, and cutting costs associated with worker safety and building upkeep. All of these abuses are connected.

“As a result, many of the buildings in Bangladesh are poorly constructed with weak foundations and floors illegally added after original construction. Most buildings lack proper fire exits and contain open stairwells that act as chimneys for smoke rather than escape routes for workers.

“According to the latest assessment of factories in Bangladesh by engineers from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, only one in ten garment factory buildings are structurally sound, indicating that the worker safety crisis in Bangladesh is systemic. One hundred years after the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City, today’s multinational apparel brands have created an industry of Triangle Shirtwaist factories in Bangladesh where garment workers are paid the lowest wages in the world.

“In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, USAS and labor unions across the world joined Bangladeshi workers in holding actions to demand that brands take responsibility for the worker safety crisis in Bangladesh. These actions forced over 180 apparel brands and retailers to sign on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a historic agreement between global and Bangladeshi unions and apparel brands that addresses the root causes of industrial disasters in the garment industry.

“The agreement requires: independent inspections by trained fire and building safety experts, public reporting of the results of all inspections so that workers and their unions can ensure all hazards are fixed, mandatory repairs and renovations financed by the brands to address all identified hazards, brands/retailers make a minimum two year sourcing commitment to their factories in Bangladesh, a central role for workers and their unions, including worker-led safety committees in all factories, access to factories for unions so they can train workers on safety and their right to organize and the right of workers to refuse work they deem to be unsafe. A legally binding contract between brands and unions make these commitments enforceable.

“The agreement represents a breakthrough for workers rights in the garment industry. Never before in the modern apparel industry have brands been forced to agree to a legally binding agreement forcing them to pay higher prices for their garments, give unions access to their factories, and commit to a multi-year sourcing relationship with their factories. The Accord has been recognized by Bangladesh worker unions and labor organizations as an agreement that can be used moving forward to fight for workers’ rights beyond basic health and safety issues in the future.

“Meanwhile, brands and retailers like VF Corporation (owner of Jansport), Gap, and Walmart have been scheming up ways to block the Accord’s precedents from entering their own supply chains. In July, these brands and retailers unveiled a fake safety scheme called the ‘Alliance for Worker Safety,’ another voluntary scheme in the long series of ineffective corporate auditing programs that these companies have touted for years.

“Under this company-controlled program, workers and their unions hold no decision-making power, brands and retailers control the factory inspections and are not obligated to pay one cent towards the renovation and repair of factories, and all of the supposed commitments of the program are voluntary with no enforcement mechanism.

“VF Corporation has sweatshops all around the world with some of the most egregious violations of human rights we’ve seen to date. We focus a lot on Bangladesh because of the recent tragedies that have taken place there, but there are well documented cases of worker harassment, abuse, and union busting all throughout the globe.

“Here are the facts:

“VF was producing at That’s It Sportswear factory in Bangladesh (owned by Hameem Group), which burned in December of 2010, killing 29 workers and injuring more than a hundred. The factory had illegal construction, no proper fire exits, shoddy wiring, and many exit doors were locked. Workers were trapped on the top floors of the factory. Many jumped to their deaths. VF had repeatedly inspected the factory and yet had completely failed to address the safety hazards. [Sourced from Nytimes.com]

“In October of 2012, another VF factory, Eurotex, which was disclosed as a producer of collegiate apparel, burned in Dhaka. This was a major fire, though it did not completely destroy the factory. No one was killed in the fire, because the factory was closed for a holiday – if the fire had occurred during the workday, many could have died. When contacted about this fire, VF claimed that their own disclosure data was wrong and they had stopped using the factory. [Sourced from Laborrightsblog.typepad.com.]

“In August, the Worker Rights Consortium conducted a safety assessment of Optimum Fashion, a long-time VF contract factory producing collegiate apparel. After VF attempted to prevent the WRC from accessing the factory, the WRC’s inspection uncovered a number of very serious safety hazards, all of which constitute violations of university code of conduct provisions requiring licensees to maintain safe workplaces and any of which could result in injury or death to workers. These violations ‘included inadequate means for workers to escape the factory in the event of a fire and structural flaws that would facilitate the rapid and widespread propagation of deadly smoke throughout the factory building.’ [Sourced from Workersrights.org]

“On June 20, 2014, several workers were injured during a fire at Medlar Apparels, a factory that has supplied VF apparel as far back as 2007, according to customs data. This fire occurred after VF claimed to numerous U.S. universities that it had ‘completed 100% of inspections at Bangladeshi factories where VF product is sourced.’

“After workers were successfully evacuated from the factory, a number were told to re-enter the burning building to fight the fire in order to save ‘assets’ like sewing machines. Instead of denouncing the unsafe practice of having under-trained workers serve as fire fighters, VF chose to encourage the Medlar workers with gifts of sugar and spices. [Sourced from Laborrights.org]

“Most recently, potentially fatal inspection procedures have been exposed at a VF factory in Bangladesh called Sinha Knitting. In July, the Accord audited Sinha and concluded that the factory’s concrete columns were severely over-stressed, enough so that the Accord recommended immediate closure due to the danger to workers. Prior to this investigation, the factory was given a grade ‘A’ rating by VF and the Alliance.

“Prior to initiating their investigation processes a year ago, the Accord and Alliance agreed to standard numbers to use for calculating concrete strengths of factories. In the end, documents were found showing that the concrete used in constructing Sinha Knitting was stronger than the standard, making the factory safe for operation. However, the key point here is that the Alliance had no knowledge of these documents. They were substituting erroneously high assumptions for the concrete strength in their inspections, despite the risk to workers,” sourced from Usas.org.

“And around the world? Here are a sampling of VF’s sweatshop abuses:

“In July 2010, union leaders and workers at E Garment, a supplier of collegiate apparel for VF, were violently attacked by thugs in collusion with factory management. Yet despite repeated requests to intervene, VF did not take action until after the same thugs staged another brutal attack on union leaders in February 2013. [Sourced from Workersrights.org]

“In December 2010, four Bangladeshi garment workers died and 100 were injured in clashes with police outside a factory owned by the Korean-based YoungOne group, a major producer of North Face and owner of the rights to North Face in Korea. At issue was failure of the YoungOne factory to implement a new minimum wage increase. [Sourced from Koreatimes.co.kr]

“In February 2012, the Hawkins Apparel factory in Honduras, which produced apparel for VF Corporation and Jerry Leigh, closed without paying workers approximately $300,000 in legally-owed severance benefits. After the factory closure, other buyers from the factory contributed $250,000 to help these workers, while VF Corporation refused to pay a single cent to assist them. [Sourced from Workersrights.org]

“VF contracts with several factories in Cambodia where, at the end of 2013, hundreds of thousands of Cambodian garment workers went on strike to demand a minimum wage of $160 per month – the amount a government panel found to be the bare minimum required to meet a worker’s basic needs.

“Responding to calls from factory owners to put down these protests, the country’s military violently intervened, killing four workers, hospitalizing dozens more and jailing 23 others for months. This violent response could have been prevented had VF and other major brands ensured that their contractors agree pay workers a wage that meets their basic needs. [Sourced from Workersrights.org]

“On April 2, 2014, an estimated 30,000 workers walked off the job at the Yue Yuen factory, a VF supplier, in China’s largest strike in recent memory. The Yue Yuen workers had been robbed of years of legally-owed social insurance contributions, which VF’s auditors failed to detect or address over a significant period of time. [Sourced from Newsweek.com]

“In September 2014, 400 workers fell ill after exposure to toxic chemical at the Texray factory in Swaziland, a VF collegiate factory producing for UT Austin. Workers became aware of chemical fumes emanating from a shed adjacent to the factory and immediately reported vomiting, nausea, and fainting. Factory management denied workers the ability to exit the factory and pause working, and it was not until ambulances arrived that workers were allowed to seek medical treatment. VF, despite claims of regular monitoring, provided false information to the WRC. [Sourced from Aflcio.org]

“Accord vs. Alliance

“The question about the differences between the Accord and the Alliance has gotten more and more complicated since the beginning of the End Deathtraps campaign in August, 2014. The Alliance has done a lot to try and model itself closely to the Accord. However, the fundamental, key differences between the plans are still the same. Without these fundamental elements, any changes the Alliance makes to its program are superficial.

“There are three main differences between the Accord and the Alliance that clearly demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the Alliance.

“Most importantly, the Alliance is voluntary. The content of the program is useless if there are no legal mechanisms in place that workers can use to hold the brands accountable.

“However, the Alliance likes to claim that they are legally-binding, which is one of the most creative uses of the phrase ‘legally-binding’ we have ever heard. To make it clear, the only portion of the Alliance that is legally-binding is their membership,” sourced from the Bylaws of the Alliance for Bangladesh worker safety, INC. subsection vii.

[Note from The Carolinian: It should be noted in the previous subsection, (vi) the Alliance does require members to “Issue semi-annual public reports detailing the work of the Corporation, including, without limitation, progress made towards improving fire and safety conditions at the Factories. All such reports, prior to public release, must be approved by two-thirds (2/3) of the Board. Prior to the public release of any information concerning any specific Member, such Member will be afforded an opportunity to review the text of the report relevant to such Member, and be provided a fair opportunity to be heard by the Board concerning the contents of such text.”]

Wang continues, “If a brand does not pay their membership fees, then another Alliance brand can take them to arbitration. The only consequence for the nonpayment of membership would be getting kicked out of the Alliance, but the likelihood of one brand bringing another to arbitration is very unlikely.

“The Accord is legally-binding. If a brand fails to uphold any portion of their promised actions, then workers are allowed to bring the brand to arbitration in the brand’s home country. This gives workers and their unions the power to hold brands accountable.

“There is no real role for workers in the Alliance. In response to pressure from USAS, workers, and other actors, the Alliance decided to make an advisory council made up of seven Bangladesh worker unions. However, out of the seven, four do not represent any registered factory-level unions. The other three only represent two unions each. Moreover, none of these representatives have decision-making process – they simply serve as an advisory board.

“The Accord, on the other hand, has three worker representatives on the steering committee who have equal voting power to the brands. In addition, the Accord has signatory unions, both Bangladeshi and international, that represent a large majority of the grassroots organizing efforts on the ground in the country. The Accord union signatories represent about 90% of all the registered factory-level unions in Bangladesh.

“Alliance brands are not financially obligation for any of the renovations in their factories. Financial support is the cornerstone of any legitimate safety program in Bangladesh. Most factory owners do not and can not pay to renovate their factories because of the immense price pressure the brands place on their factories to keep costs low. Thus, brands need to step in when factory owners show they need financial help to renovate their factories.

“The Alliance has a loans program called the Affordable Capital for Building Safety (ACBS program). The program lauds its low interest rates. However, the problem still remains that many factory owners cannot pay for the necessary renovations, thus paying back loans with interest would be nearly impossible. Moreover, the Alliance Members Agreement article 2.3.1 specifically states that ‘participation in the ACBS is not a condition of membership in the Alliance.’

“The Accord, however, requires its signatory brands to pay directly for any factory renovations that the factory owner has proven unable to finance.

“We recognize that the Accord is not a silver bullet solution to sweatshops, but the program is a ground-breaking agreement that has, and will continue, to allow workers to hold brands accountable. We recognize that there are glaring problems in the Bangladesh garment industry that fall outside the purview of the Accord, and while we wish one program could touch and fix all existing sweatshop abuses, the real solution is strong worker unions who can collectively fight for changes. The Accord gives unions access into factories and acts as a solid stepping stone to increase unions’ organizing capacities.”

[Note from The Carolinian: Bangladeshaccord.org lists companies from around the world which have signed the Accord, in the U.S., these include: Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters, Antigua Group Inc., E5 USA, Inc., Fruit of the Loom, J2 Licensing, Inc., Knights Apparel, L.A. T Sportswear, Inc., Lakeshirts, Inc., MV Sport, Inc., Outerstuff Ltd., New Agenda by Perrin, PVH, Scoop NYC, T Shirt International, Inc., Top of the World, Topline, Inc., W Republic and Zephyr Headwear.]

Wang then addresses: “Questions Regarding the Accord/the Alliance/VF/etc.

“JanSport does not produce apparel in Bangladesh/JanSport is an autonomous organization from VF. Why should we punish a subsidiary for the actions of its parent company, actions that JanSport cannot control?

“Sure, the branding of JanSport varies wildly from other VF brands, but the reality is that, for all intents and purposes, JanSport and VF are the same company, operating with an integrated sourcing and labor rights compliance program. JanSport may be distinguishable from VF Corporation in the U.S., at the level of marketing and sales, but it is completely identical to VF overseas in the areas of sourcing and vendor compliance – which are what actually matter for ensuring labor rights compliance among its suppliers in Bangladesh and other developing countries.

“Take the following points into consideration: It is VF’s own labor compliance program that is responsible for monitoring conditions in factories making JanSport brand products. The JanSport brand does not have any labor compliance program of its own. The safety standards VF’s compliance staff use at factories making JanSport products are VF’s, not JanSport’s. On the JanSport website, the tab labeled ‘Global Compliance’ simply links to the Global Compliance page on VF’s website.

“On its web page for its collegiate apparel business, Jansport states, ‘Through our parent Company, VF Corp., we’ve taken steps to assess, improve, and monitor those conditions and connect you to VF Corporate Responsibility for the most complete and accurate information directly available and constantly updated.’

“It is VF that manages sourcing relationships with factories that make JanSport products. Again, the JanSport brand has no separate sourcing operation of its own. All applications to become a supplier of JanSport product  are processed  through VF’s corporate sourcing portal. JanSport has no separate sourcing portal or application. VF maintains a single set of sourcing policies and procedures, including its Code of Conduct, Facility Compliance Guidelines, Factory Audit Procedures, and Terms of Engagement, that it applies to companies that produce apparel bearing the names of any of its brands, including JanSport.

“In a communication to universities, VF Jansport brand representatives claimed that JanSport’s ‘independently chooses which countries and factories to source their products.’ However, in VF’s latest 10-K annual report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the company describes its sourcing practices very differently: that ‘Independent contractors…are engaged through VF sourcing hubs in Hong Kong (with satellite offices across Asia) and Panama. These hubs are responsible for coordinating the manufacturing and procurement of product, supplier management, product quality assurance, and transportation and shipping functions in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, respectively. Substantially all products in the Outdoor & Action Sports and Sportswear Coalitions, . . . are obtained through these sourcing hubs.’

“Because, on VF’s organizational chart, JanSport is part of VF’s ‘Outdoor Coalition,’ sourcing decisions Jansport are made centrally, through VF’s own ‘sourcing hubs.’ Contrary to the company’s claims, there is no independent JanSport sourcing operation.

“The claim that VF and JanSport should be treated as two wholly separate companies is laughable in its dishonesty, particularly with respect to those operations that are most relevant to the question of compliance with university codes: its sourcing operations and its vendor compliance program. In these aspects, VF and Jansport are simply one and the same.

“Given this reality, it is equally dishonest to argue that our university should treat the licenses it grants for JanSport collegiate products any differently than it would licenses for any of the other brands owned by VF. So long as our university does business with VF, whether through JanSport or any other VF brand, we are associating ourselves with VF Corporation’s deadly business model in Bangladesh. If our university continues to license JanSport collegiate products despite VF’s actions in Bangladesh, we would send a signal to the entire apparel industry that brands can and should use trade names and technicalities to evade complying with university codes of conduct.”



Categories: Catie Byrne, News

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