UNC Debates How Best to Protect Factory Workers in Bangladesh

Student activists held protests to back a strong factory safety agreement for companies that produce Tar Heel merchandise

May 10--CHAPEL HILL -- UNC-Chapel Hill has long been a leader in the anti-sweatshop movement, but that reputation is on the line amid a debate about protecting garment workers' safety in Bangladesh.

In recent weeks, student activists have held protests to push the UNC-CH administration to back a strong factory safety agreement for companies that produce Tar Heel T-shirts and other logo merchandise. Faculty say they don't want to see the campus backslide on its proud record of influencing worker protections on a global stage.

Meanwhile, administrators have been noncommittal about how far they're willing to go to demand safety improvements by the apparel industry, and a North Carolina company is taking part in the debate.

At issue is worker safety at garment factories in Bangladesh, where a year ago more than 1,100 workers died in the Rana Plaza collapse near Dhaka. There were hundreds of deaths in two other factory fires in 2012. The tragedies awakened student activists years after the first anti-sweatshop groups formed in the 1990s to protest wages and working conditions at shoe factories in Asia.

Duke and UNC-CH were trend-setters in that movement, and now some say UNC-CH's leadership position is at risk, depending on the outcome of the current debate.

Two main efforts have emerged to bolster safety in Bangladesh, now the center of the world's garment manufacturing, along with China and Vietnam:

--The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh includes independent inspections, public reporting and legally binding rules. It has been adopted by about 150 companies, mostly European.

--The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is led by 26 North American companies, including Wal-Mart Stores, Gap, Target and Greensboro-based VF Corp., parent company to Wrangler, North Face, JanSport and other brands. The Alliance agreement provides for inspectors chosen by the companies, and while the firms pledge to conduct work only in safe factories, they are not required to leave a factory that does not meet the standard.

'A wavering position'

UNC-CH's internal Licensing Labor Code Advisory Committee studied the issue from October to February, then released a report in March. It stated a strong preference for the university to go with the Accord. But the group also suggested that the university could compel licensees to sign either the Accord or Alliance.

The downside to allowing the Alliance, the committee's report said, was "the university could be perceived to be taking a wavering position on a human rights issue."

In late April, on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, students held a sit-in at UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt's office. For months they have pressed UNC-CH to require its licensees to sign the Accord. More than 20 universities have signed thus far.

Olivia Abrecht, 20, a junior from Washington, D.C., and member of Student Action with Workers, was among the protesters. She said no other universities have allowed the Alliance as an alternative to the Accord.

"For us to be doing this not only sends a bad message to people within North Carolina, but across the country, that universities are OK with apparel being made in factories that are not safe," Abrecht said.

A few weeks ago, 180 students attended a speakout, where two Bangladeshi workers spoke, Abrecht said, and 800 signed a petition calling for the Accord. Students met three weeks ago with Folt, who said she had not made up her mind on the issue, Abrecht said.

On the eve of the April 24 student protest, UNC system President Tom Ross issued a memo to chancellors saying he wants to study the issue for all universities, even though he previously had said he would leave the decision up to individual campuses. A recommendation for a systemwide approach will be made by January. Until then, campuses were instructed to require licensees to sign either the Accord or the Alliance agreements.

"What we're trying to avoid is potentially different outcomes at different campuses," Ross said in an interview.

Folt has not taken a public position on the issue of Accord versus Alliance. Her staff said she was not available for an interview this week. In an email, spokeswoman Tanya Moore said that university records indicate that, as of Jan. 1, all UNC-CH collegiate wear is being produced by licensees who are already Accord members or who use Accord-governed factories.

The chancellor met with VF representatives, who assured UNC-CH that they stopped sourcing collegiate products in Bangladesh last year, Moore said.

Folt supports Ross' call for a systemwide decision, the spokeswoman said. But faculty members don't like the idea of giving up campus autonomy on this issue.

Four veteran professors who previously worked on campus licensing labor code issues sent a letter to Ross saying it would be "profoundly disturbing for our chancellor to be stripped of jurisdiction" on an issue on which UNC-CH has been a national leader for 15 years.

One of the letter's signers, Richard "Pete" Andrews, professor of public policy, said other universities are "really out ahead of us now" by going with the Accord. "I just would hate for Chapel Hill to be the first major university to take a weaker position," Andrews said in an interview.

In the late 1990s, Andrews and two other professors created a course on the economics and ethics of the global economy, using Nike as an example. At the time, Nike was at the center of a storm of public opinion on conditions in shoe factories.

'A way to distract'

Some student activists said they were disappointed that Folt didn't take a stand herself.

"She's using (Ross') letter as a way to distract from her decision-making power," said Naomi Carbrey, 22, a junior from Durham.

Students said they worried that VF Corp. would try to exert influence over the decision. VF representatives met with the internal advisory committee, as did another licensee that joined the other agreement. In a Sept. 13 letter to Derek Lochbaum, the university's licensing and trademark director, executives with VF's Licensed Sports Group explained that they favor the Alliance because the agreement spells out the company's specific contractual obligations.

"This specificity is important to ensure that member funds are spent efficiently to address safety issues in Bangladesh," Jim Pisani and Douglas Parker wrote.

VF officials said the Alliance and the Accord have the same goals and methods -- common safety standards, financial commitments, worker training and a long-term commitment to change.

Layna Mosley, a political science professor whose research includes economic globalization and labor rights, served on the internal advisory committee that recommended the Accord.

Mosley recently wrote to Ross: "This leadership is particularly salient for Carolina, where we continue to deal with negative publicity related to athletics, and where our state has a long history of textile and apparel production (much of which moved to this state because of its relatively weak legal protections for workers)."

In an interview, Mosley added: "I really want to see the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill exercising leadership here, because we want to say we're progressive enough to realize that producing cheaply by putting workers at risk is just not a thing we want to be doing."

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