September 17, 2013
Dear President Sexton,
We, the NYU Student & Labor Movement, are writing to you today with grave concerns about the safety of workers who produce our university apparel in Bangladesh and across world in factories that function as literal deathtraps. As you know, 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 year alone. This crisis of worker safety in the garment industry has reached a breaking point. In order to put an end to these tragedies and ensure that no worker is producing university apparel in an unsafe workplace, we are writing to demand our university strengthen its Labor Code of Conduct and require that licensees sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh to ensure greater accountability for university licensees to take responsibility for the safety of their workers.
As you know, Bangladesh is now the second largest garment exporting country in the world, with over 40 total collegiate apparel brands sourcing from the country. This surge is the country’s garment industry has occurred alongside brands and retailers placing relentless price and delivery pressure on local contractors in Bangladesh, who meet these demands by ignoring worker rights, paying the lowest wage rate in the world of $37/month, and cutting costs associated with worker safety and building upkeep. 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. The latest assessment of factories in Bangladesh by engineers from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology found that only one in 10 garment factory buildings were structurally sound, indicating that workplace safety hazards are systemic in Bangladesh. The stark reality is that the next factory fire or building collapse could occur at any moment in a factory producing apparel for our university.
Fortunately, in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, over 80 apparel brands and retailers have signed on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. This historic agreement between global and Bangladeshi unions and apparel brands addresses the root causes of industrial disasters in the garment industry by requiring independent inspections by trained fire safety experts; public reporting of the results of all inspections; mandatory repairs and renovations financed by the brands to address all identified hazards; a central role for workers and their unions, including worker-led safety committees in all factories and access to factories for unions; and a legally binding contract between the brands and unions that makes these commitments enforceable.
The provisions of this agreement are basic and fundamental – there is no credible reason why any company that cares about the wellbeing of its workers would refuse to sign on. Nevertheless, at the date of writing, not a single collegiate licensee has signed the Accord. That’s why SLAM is demanding the university include the following language to its Labor Code of Conduct, immediately notify all licensees of these new requirements, and terminate contracts with brands that refuse to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord:
1. Licensees that produce or source collegiate-licensed apparel in Bangladesh shall sign and remain a party to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh within 14 days of being given notice of this requirement.
2. Licensees shall require their supplier factories to respect the right of a worker to refuse work that the worker has reasonable justification to believe is unsafe, without suffering discrimination or loss of pay, including the right to refuse to enter or to remain inside a building that the worker has reasonable justification to believe is unsafe for occupation.
3. Licensees shall meet directly with any duly constituted union whose members include one or more workers employed in a factory producing its collegiate apparel, upon that union’s request to the licensee, to discuss grave risks to worker health and safety that have been identified by workers, their representatives or third party inspectors.
The first requirement will mandate that any brand with collegiate production in Bangladesh sign on to the Accord as a condition producing apparel for our school. Any brand that refuses to sign on to the Accord within 14 days notice of the requirement, must have its contract terminated. The second requirement includes language from the Accord granting workers the right to refuse work that they have credible reason to believe is unsafe. We believe it’s critical that this same right be extended to workers producing collegiate apparel anywhere throughout the world. The third requirement will be critical for licensees to proactively resolve safety issues identified in collegiate factories. As the Accord is an agreement between brands and unions to guarantee the safety of contract factories in Bangladesh, it’s important for unions in other collegiate factories outside Bangladesh to have the right to meet directly with brands to address safety hazards in their factories.
Given the gravity of the disasters that have occurred in the garment industry in the last year alone, we feel that you have an obligation to adhere to the core values of one of America’s leading institutions of higher education, and to the wishes of members of this school’s community, by immediately instituting these requirements of licensees to ensure the safety of workers producing collegiate apparel.
Please let us know when you are available in the next two weeks to meet in person and discuss these issues further. We look forward to your prompt response.
NYU Student & Labor Action Movement
A Local of United Students Against Sweatshops