Bangladesh safety monitor trumpets workers rights at SF State

The collapse of a Bangladeshi garment factory building, which produced American and European retail clothing, reverberated around the world. The tragedy left 1127 low-wage workers dead and thousands injured caused by neglect of safety standards by building owners.

SF State recently identified its connection to this far-flung tragedy. Students are at the opposite end of a global commodity chain that starts with clothes production by low-wage workers, and ends in the hands of U.S. consumers. Friday, May 10, SF State students got to hear about that chain from someone who had seen the factories with his own eyes.

Workers Rights Consortium Deputy Director Ben Hensler spoke to a gathering of about thirty or so students in Professor John Logan’s international labor class at the downtown campus, and though the class was small, the message was big — SF State students should pay attention to where their clothing comes from, he said.

The consortium bargains for worker’s rights in garment factories worldwide, fighting for safe fire exits, fair wages and lunch breaks. Just this past Monday they secured a legally binding contract with H&M and other companies securing safer buildings and fire safety for workers in Bangladesh, according to the New York Times.

When workers saw a crack in the building, Hensler said, “they left the building in fear.”

“But the next day the managers told them if they did not go back,” he said, “they would lose their jobs.”

And thats when the walls fell. One woman, according to the Times, spent 17 days under the rubble.

Nike, Walmart, Dickies, Disney and Fruit of the Loom are just some of the other companies that contract with factories across China, Bangladesh, Central America and Mexico where clothing is made that ultimately is sold in the United States.

Bangladesh is the second largest garment exporter in the world, though within a few years it will likely eclipse the top exporter, China, Hensler said.

Bangladeshi garment workers make on average of 24 cents an hour, Hensler told the students.

Students across the country have demanded their administrators join the consortium’s list of self-reporting schools, but out of 180 universities, SF State isn’t on the list of recent reports.

University spokesperson Ellen Griffin did not respond to emails about SF State’s self reporting to the consortium at the time of publication.

SF State is on the list of affiliated schools, but according to the website “If the name of a college or university that is affiliated with the WRC does not appear on the pull-down menu, it is because the WRC has not received data from that school for the most recent reporting period.”

Most of the SFSU branded apparel sold on campus is available at the bookstore, which is run by Follett Higher Education Group, a company based in Illinois that runs over 900 bookstores in the U.S. and Canada.

Elio DiStaola, the director of public and campus relations for Follett, said that SF State sells a wide variety of brands at its bookstore: Camp David, Champion, Jansport, New Era, Topsox, Zepher and Twins to name a few.

The consortium’s website shows that those companies have factories all over the world, making SF State an end market for clothes from China to Bangladesh.

Follett has its own methods in place for ensuring fair wages and working conditions, DiStaola said, and they also belong to the Fair Labor Association.

“Manufacturers all over the globe are hard to manage, but once you have these codes of conduct and methods in place… we visit facilities every year,” DiStaola said.

A New York Times story last year featured criticism of the Fair Labor Association’s standards.

“The FLA does some good work, but we don’t think it’s appropriate for them to call themselves independent investigators because they’re in part funded by companies,” Scott Nova, the director of the Workers Rights Consortium told the Times.

The Follett company’s labor and safety codes of conduct must be signed by each of their vendors.

The code of conduct prohibits child labor, asks fair wages for women, and wages that “comply with all applicable laws and regulations and match or exceed the prevailing local manufacturing industry practices.”

Notably though, many of the factories that are signed on with Follett haven’t been inspected by the Workers Rights Consortium, which inspects  garment factories all over the world.

Among the world’s garment factories, one in particular has a sparkling reputation for actually paying a living wage, Hensler told the SF State students — Alta Gracia, in the Dominican Republic.

SF State sells some apparel from Alta Gracia, and Follett sells its apparel in about 120 of its 900 stores, DiStaola said.

The relatively low supply of garments from factories like Alta Gracia, he said, is more a matter of what the customers are asking for.

“This conversation we’re having is popular in some segments of higher education,” DiStaola said, “and crickets in other parts of higher education.”

As for SF State, there’s only one way the University can provide totally ethical clothing, DiStaola said.

“For us its about demand,” he said. “If its selling through, you’ll see more of that product in the store.”

Back in the classroom, Hensler told the students that demanding fair wage products in their university was key to helping factories across the world. Some garment workers who try to unionize are met with firings, torture and even death, he told the mostly silent students.

When his lesson about Bangladeshi factories was done, Cassandra Carrillo, a 23-year-old sociology major, asked Hensler a question. “Being so close to this, how conscious are you about where you’re buying clothes for yourself?”

Hensler chuckled as he answered. “I had trouble with it for a long time. Maybe that’s why I dress like a dope.”

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