USAS’s “International Week of Action to End Deathtraps” campaign: Of US Universities and the Bangladesh Garments Workers

On the crisp and chilly evening of October 21, a group made up of students, faculty, and the general community at Pennsylvania State University held a candle-light vigil commemorating the Rana Plaza tragedy. This vigil, organized by the Penn State chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), drew an impressively large crowd considering the tragedy was half-a-year old and State College is ensconced in the middle of the parochial Pennsylvania landscape – it is over two hundred miles to the urbanity of Philadelphia and the cosmopolitanism of New York City.

Being a Bangladeshi, it was certainly a humbling experience to think that about these college students empathizing and caring for others in a country few of them can even identify on the map. What is also significant is that the vigil marks only one act in a national campaign organized by the USAS to bring about significant changes to the ways clothes and equipments sold to universities are manufactured. I think USAS knows that top universities in the US are sensitive to bad-publicity – their mystique relies so much on their brands of being liberal and socially conscious spaces – and therefore will often make changes to whom they do business with based on public perception than corporate retailers might.

USAS’s “International Week of Action to End Deathtraps” campaign, aiming to convince universities to do business with only those apparel manufacturers who have signed onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, is already getting national coverage and arguably having an impact. USA Today, one of the largest newspapers in the US, recently ran a story on the USAS campaign and in the process reminded their readership of that tragedy, which otherwise has slipped out of the national consciousness distracted by the latest drama from Washington. Adidas also recently announced plans to sign the accord, making it the first college-logo brand to do so. Given how much athletic apparel manufacturers rely on the college market this is not surprising. And given these developments I wondered whether or not USAS might really be onto something here.

But I am not a labor economist; nor did I know much about the accord. So, fortunate to have a Bangladeshi scholar working on global workers rights at Penn State, I asked him to school me on it. Dr. Jakir Hussain, a post-doctoral scholar at the Center for Global Workers’ Rights of Labor and Employment Relations, explained the aspects of the law to me simply. He told me that basically the brands that had signed the accord would put together a body – inclusive of representatives from the labor unions, the government of Bangladesh, international NGOs, and the ILO – to regularly inspect the factories from where they source their merchandise. If these factories did not meet the standards – even after a set-number of warnings – the brands would no longer buy from those factories. Thereby the accord would function as a market-based regulatory system, and though sidestepping the judicial process, potentially enact a real form of accountability.

So how does this relate to focusing on universities to pressure apparel brands to sign onto the accord? Despite the mystique of US wealth, the average US consumer is simply too busy to reflect on where their things come from; most people here are barely making it money-wise, and managing the various pulls of their regular lives and cannot afford to boycott the Wallmarts and the K-marts. These brands know this – that though their general consumers might think the sweatshops in Bangladesh are a tragedy, they simply cannot shop anywhere else. Cheap clothes and convenience – as oxymoronic as it sounds – are factors in a sellers market.
College students, on the other hand, are different beasts, and universities are a different type of jungle. Overall both represent affluent bodies and live in spaces where the importance of social conscience is hammered home everyday in classes, peer-discussions, campus events, etc. (it is not surprising that areas with universities tend to vote Democrat). All this means university students have the luxury of choice and a tendency to make judgments based on senses of value that are not just dollars-and-cents. More so they are also more brand conscious – in that their brands are their universities – and ethics make up a large aspect of that brand.

So when Bangladeshis laments that big brands from the US not signing onto the accord, it is important to consider whether it is better to tactically align with organizations such as the USAS. There is a lot of potential in going this route. University by-laws can be convoluted, but inserting a notion such as fair trade into their code of conduct and making the apparel manufacturers adhere to those rules seems pragmatic. More so given the sensitivity of the universities to public perception and their weight as customers it would probably work.

Sources:
Accord on Fire and Building Safety. http://goo.gl/qrFF0P
“Adidas is first college-apparel company to sign accord.” http://goo.gl/OSHz1u
Center for Global Workers Rights. http://goo.gl/jxWUPD
“On Rana Plaza anniversary, college students take action.” http://goo.gl/OuUctK
“USAS holds vigil to end deathtraps.” http://goo.gl/A7O5wN
USAS Website. http://usas.org/

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