Student groups at colleges across the country are demanding no more people die creating a North Face product.
VF Corporation, the parent company of outerwear clothing brand The North Face, has refused to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which aims to ensure the health and safety of factory workers. Brands such as American Eagle, H&M and Adidas are among over 150 companies to have signed the accord thus far.
A fire at one of VF Corporation’s supplier factories killed at least 20 people in 2010.
“The next disaster could happen in a factory producing apparel for a US university,” International Campaign Coordinator at United Students Against Sweatshops and recent graduate of the University of Washington Garrett Shishido Strain said. Penn’s Student Labor Action Project joined in on USAS’s campaign titled “North Face Deathtraps” at the beginning of the school year.
VF Corporation is the largest branded apparel manufacturer in the world with over 91 factories providing jobs to over 190,000 workers in Bangladesh. It also owns brands such as Jansport, Vans, Timberland and Nautica.
T he choice to focus on The North Face brand came from a desire to center the campaign on a name that is familiar to college students, SLAP member and College freshman Devan Spear said. On March 1, a group of approximately 15 Penn and Temple students stood outside of The North Face store in Center City, chanting and distributing flyers to passersby to promote their cause.
This isn’t the first time SLAP has been involved in advocating for workers’ rights abroad. Last December, the group helped to ensure that clothing sold at the Penn Bookstore will be created in safe conditions by convincing the administration to require the brands to which it grants licenses to sign the accord. Penn was one of the first of 11 schools nationwide to have taken this action since the national campaign started last September. Student groups involved in the “North Face Deathtraps” campaign work independently on their respective campuses, but can also attend national conferences, as some SLAP members did this November, Shishido Strain said.
Currently, SLAP is shifting its focus from Penn’s administration to VF Corporation. Although the company has not signed the accord, it claims to be committed to an agenda of “Corporate Responsibility.” According to the company’s website, VF established a set of Global Compliance Principles in 1997 that outline worker rights. These standards are the minimum that must be met for VF to engage in business with a factory.
Principle 7, “Health and Safety,” says that workers must be provided with a safe work environment that is in compliance with the laws of the factory’s home country.
Bangladesh passed a new law regarding worker safety in July 2013 due to economic pressure from the United States after a factory building collapse at Rana Plaza that April, Al Jazeera reported. The law forbids padlocking doors — a fire hazard — and requires structural changes to undergo inspection, since extra floors are often added that cannot support workers’ weight, which caused the collapse at Rana Plaza. VF Corporation was not connected to the collapse at Rana Plaza.
“It’s our hope that, in the spirit of our shared goals, the Alliance and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh will continue to actively seek opportunities to collaborate and align moving forward,” VF Corporation said in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “It’s essential that this not be viewed as a competition between groups, but rather as somewhat differing approaches en route to achieving the same goal — a safe workplace for people in Bangladesh.” The company cited its common work with labor organizations and the Bangladeshi government to advocate for worker safety.
While Bangladesh may seem a world away, SLAP is confident that it can make a difference on this issue of worker safety.
“There are obviously a lot of things going on internationally that we should care about that we don’t necessarily have the power to change,” Spear said. “It’s important for students to recognize where they have power and use that power to create change.”