Chapel Hill: Opinion

July 11, 2014

Commentary: UNC must hold garment makers accountable

An open letter to UNC-CH Chancellor Folt and UNC System President Ross,

An open letter to UNC-CH Chancellor Folt and UNC System President Ross,

We have recently received concerning information that we must share with you. VF Corp.’s failure to take responsibility for worker’s safety in its Bangladeshi garment factories and UNC’s failure to hold them accountable has led to another factory disaster. UNC cannot afford to wait to rethink its position regarding UNC’s continued relationship with VF Corp..

On June 20th Medlar Apparels, a factory that produces apparel for VF Corp., caught fire due to a faulty electrical system. Fifty factory workers were injured because of improper fire exits and some continue to be hospitalized. This disaster could have been prevented. Representatives from United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), including UNC student Naomi Carbrey, met with Medlar workers when they traveled to Bangladesh in August 2013. The workers informed USAS that the Medlar factory lacked proper fire exits and had unsafe stairwells. Although VF representatives had visited the factory, there had been no action taken to remediate the dangerous situation. Medlar workers were terrified a fire would occur in the unsafe factory, and because of VF’s inaction their fears have become reality.

As you are aware, this is not the first time there has been a disaster in a factory producing apparel for VF Corp.. In 2010, 29 workers were killed in a fire at That’s it Sportswear factory in Bangladesh and in 2012, Eurotex, another VF factory, had a major fire. VF had repeatedly inspected the factories and had failed to address the safety hazards. VF Corp. has demonstrated a complete disregard for the safety of its workers and UNC must sever its relationship with VF immediately.

Since the USAS delegation to Bangladesh, students have repeatedly warned UNC that VF Corp. would continue to avoid its responsibilities and put workers lives in danger. In April Bangladeshi garment worker leaders Aleya Akter and Aklima Khanam traveled to UNC to speak with Chancellor Folt and directly asked her to dissolve ties with VF Corp.. While at least 13 colleges and universities, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison and New York University, have decided to cut VF's contract, UNC has chosen to support a Corp. that puts workers lives directly at risk and refused to require our apparel brands, including VF Corp., to join the Bangladesh Safety Accord.

On June 28, students from the UNC system and other schools across the country converged on the headquarters of VF Corp. in Greensboro to demand that VF take responsibility for the over 50 injuries and 29 deaths that have occurred in VF factories in Bangladesh. Together with community members, the students engaged in a candlelight vigil outside the home of VF Corp. CEO Eric Wiseman and demanded that VF join the Bangladesh Safety Accord. As long as UNC stands by VF Corp., it allows VF to continue skirting its responsibilities and endangering people’s lives.

The Chapel Hill Town Council, the Chapel Hill/Carrboro NAACP, the Human Rights Center in Carrboro, the Progressive Faculty Network, the NC AFL-CIO, the UNC Student Congress, the UNC Licensing and Labor Code Advisory Committee to the Chancellor and many others have all urged UNC to require the Accord. Over 20 U.S. colleges and universities have required the Accord as opposed to accepting VF Corp.s “Alliance” with Walmart and Gap, a non-legally binding alternative, as a viable option.

It’s time for UNC to change course and renew its longstanding commitment to protecting human rights. We are calling on Chancellor Folt to take immediate action and cut VF’s contract with UNC-Chapel Hill and on President Ross to recommend all UNC system schools require apparel brands to be members of the Accord. In 2013, VF Corp. brought in $11.4 billion in revenue and $5.48 billion in gross profit. VF can afford to manufacture out of safe factories. UNC is a leading public academic university. We cannot afford to support a company such as VF.

Submitted by Richard Lindayen, Naomi Carbrey and Olivia Abrecht on behalf of United Students Against Sweatshops.

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