Duke University demands safety agreement from Bangladesh apparel factories

jstancill@newsobserver.comOctober 18, 2013 

— The anti-sweatshop movement, which blossomed on college campuses in the 1990s, is making a resurgence.

This week, Duke University announced that it will require manufacturers of Duke logo apparel to sign an agreement about building and fire safety in Bangladesh. The move comes in the aftermath of a disastrous factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 people and injured twice as many in April.

Bangladesh is one of the world’s top producers of clothing. Conditions for factory workers there have been in the spotlight since the eight-story building collapsed from structural failure, trapping workers in the rubble.

Companies that do business with Duke will be asked to sign the Accord on Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh, an agreement among international labor groups, nongovernmental organizations and textile companies.

The accord has already been signed by nearly 100 brands from 19 nations. It calls for independent safety inspections, repairs and renovations when needed, and a role for workers in factory safety policies.

“We believe this is a fair and reasonable requirement that will help foster a safe and secure workplace, and we will be working with licensees to implement this policy as soon as possible,” Duke’s executive vice president, Tallman Trask III, said in a statement.

Jim Wilkerson, the university’s director of trademark licensing and store operations, said Duke is the first university to require its licensees to sign on to the safety pact. This is the first binding agreement for manufacturers in Bangladesh, where the average worker is paid 18 cents an hour, Wilkerson said.

Results from independent inspections of factories will be publicly disclosed as part of the agreement, he said.

About $2 million of Duke’s logo sales each year are manufactured in Bangladesh, with 19 companies among the makers.

$30 million a year

Worldwide sales of Duke merchandise total about $30 million annually, and the university reaps royalties of 7.5 percent of retail sales, Wilkerson said.

“We want to do everything we can to make sure Duke products are manufactured in safe, humane and decent working conditions,” said Wilkerson, who serves on the board of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization.

It’s an uphill battle, Wilkerson said.

“We’re chasing it all around the world,” he said. “Unfortunately there are a number of companies out there who over time, when wages increase in one country, they pick up their manufacturing and move it to another country where the wages are lower. In the industry, it’s known as the flight to the bottom.”

Duke students played a key role in the decision. About six weeks ago, the Duke United Students Against Sweatshops reconstituted after years of dormancy. The Duke chapter of the national group had been active in the mid-2000s.

‘Urgent issue’

The students pushed for the change and helped make a compelling case, Wilkerson said. The tragedy in Bangladesh activated students, said Zoe Willingham, a first-year student from Chico, Calif.

“This is an increasingly urgent issue and I think that is what students are responding to,” she said.

The group held a couple of meetings with Duke leaders, who were willing to act quickly, Willingham said.

“Everyone with United Students Against Sweatshops is really excited to know that the administration is really committed to this issue,” she said.

Student groups would like to see universities flex their muscle to require companies to extend safety protections for workers who make clothing beyond the collegiate apparel line, Willingham said.

Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill students advocating for labor rights will travel to Temple University in the next few weeks for a training session to further their activism.

“We are totally refreshed,” Willingham said. “We’re a whole new generation.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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