A group of about 20 gathered outside Penn President Amy Gutmann’s house last night for a candlelight vigil — organized by the Student Labor Action Project — in memory of the thousands of garment workers who died in Bangladesh last April in the collapse of the Rana Plaza textile factory.
The group has long worked to pressure the administration to use its influence to improve not only the conditions for the workers who make its apparel — some of which, they say, is produced in Bangladesh — as well as conditions for its own workers.
“Our ideal situation, as customers of Penn, is to put pressure on our university, which can pressure subcontracting companies to change their wages and benefits for workers on this campus,” College sophomore and SLAP member Clara Hendrickson said.
And in holding the vigil outside of Gutmann’s house, SLAP intends to garner substantive action from the University president.
“It’s very strategic to have a target, and not just say generally, ‘We want this thing to change,’” Hendrickson said. “There is a committee on manufacturer responsibility, and they often make recommendations to the president about what decisions to make with contracting and licensees, so she is the ultimate decision maker. That’s why we are targeting her tonight.”
But SLAP’s agenda also reaches beyond Gutmann to the companies that make Penn apparel. “We are trying to get Penn to change its code of conduct for licensees,” Hendrickson said. “We want it to have a more modernized language to include the tragedies in Bangladesh, so that companies who are making Penn apparel would have to sign on to the Bangladesh Safety Accord.”
At 8 p.m., the students huddled in a circle, lit candles along the fence outside the president’s house and shared expressions of sympathy and poems about Bangladesh, sweatshops and “calls to action.”
“Create for the dead, fight like hell for the living,” said Garrett Strain, a national organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops, who was the only non-Penn student in attendance.
“There is no reason working in a garment factory should be a dangerous job,” he added.
Thirty minutes into the vigil, Penn and Philadelphia police officers arrived and stood silently next to the vigil. The police declined to comment on why they were there.
The appearance of the police seemed only to motivate those gathered in front of Gutmann’s house. Upon seeing the police, a few students broke into song.
“Solidarity forever! For the union makes us strong!”