February 18, 2014

EDITORIAL: Protecting Workers in Bangladesh and Beyond

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On Feb. 12, the University made a commitment to improving conditions for workers in garment factories in Bangladesh, joining five peer institutions in signing an agreement that requires apparel licensees to invest in fire and safety infrastructure. We applaud Cornell’s continuing dedication to using the University brand to support workers’ rights — and we believe student government should follow the administration’s lead. To start, we encourage the Student Assembly to require student organizations that are funded by the student activity fee — to which the collective undergraduate population contributes — to limit their clothing expenditures to sweatshop-free apparel.

The University’s announcement that it will require apparel licensees to adhere to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh comes nearly 10 months after the Rana Plaza factory collapse. We hope this action will help maintain consumer boycott momentum even after the visibility of the tragedy has waned. Companies that sign the legally-binding accord agree to continue to produce in Bangladesh factories for at least five years, and are required to fund fire and safety improvements there. Of the 18 companies licensed to produce Cornell apparel, seven have already signed the Accord. We approve of Cornell’s decision to pressure the 11 remaining companies to either sign the agreement or lose the University’s business — and we expect the University to terminate contracts with non-compliant companies, as it did with Adidas in 2012.

In a globalized marketplace, upholding labor standards — including the freedom to join a union and collectively bargain, safe working conditions, prohibitions on forced and child labor and equal pay for equal work — are key to ensuring workers can maintain a basic quality of life. There is a strong tradition of student activism at Cornell on these issues; indeed, the University’s new licensing requirement was made possible in large part by the efforts of organizations like Cornell Organization for Labor Action and Cornell Sweatfree Coalition. The actions of these groups and of the administration should motivate student government to hold its organizations to the same standards. Student organizations are not currently required to purchase apparel from fair trade manufacturers, but we believe that must change.

There is no lack of collegiate apparel companies that adhere to fair trade practices. One such Cornell-approved example is Alta Gracia Apparel, which does business with more than 800 U.S. colleges and, according to their website, values “paying workers enough so that they can provide their families with food, clean water, clothing” and more. We commend the University for choosing to do business with these types of companies. Yet for such actions to be effective, consumer boycotts should reach beyond the administration to the purchasing habits of its student population. Amending SAFC and byline funding requirements accordingly would help to institutionalize Cornell’s efforts to end labor abuses.