Nearly a year after the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, two organizers of the Bangladeshi labor movement encouraged University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) students to continue pressuring clothing companies to sign an important workplace safety accord.
Aleya Akter, 29, general secretary of the Bangladeshi Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, and Aklima Khanam, 20, a garment worker who survived the deadly Rana Plaza disaster, visited the university Monday.
"I want to tell university students [that] we're making clothing for you, so do you want us to be in factories like Rana Plaza … where workers are dying," Khanam asked while speaking through a translator.
The UIC's chapter of the United Students Against Sweatshops, a student run-organization active on more than 150 college campuses in North America, hosted Monday's discussion about the continued struggle for garment worker safety in Bangladesh.
Garrett Strain, international campaigns coordinator for United Students Against Sweatshops, said some 1,800 garment workers have died in preventable factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh since 2005.
The single deadliest accident in the apparel industry's history occurred in Bangladesh on April 24 of last year. That's when the eight-story Rana Plaza, a building that contained several garment factories producing clothing for western consumers, collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring thousands more.
Following Monday's discussion on factory safety, UIC students, other local supporters and the two Bangladeshi activists delivered a letter to the university's chancellor, urging the institution to require apparel brands it uses, including JanSport backpacks owned by VF Corporation, to sign the "Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh."
Some 150 apparel companies from across the world have signed the legally-binding agreement thus far. Among other requirements, the accord mandates independent building and fire safety inspections for Bangladeshi garment factories, and requires the inspection findings to be made public. Corporations involved with the accord have to "finance the cost of repairs and renovations necessary to make our factories safe," the letter to the UIC chancellor reads.
Akter said 10 factories have received full inspections since February, which is when mandated factory visits under the accord first began.
Workers in factories that produce clothing for brands associated with the accord are also having an easier time forming unions and operating workers' associations, she added.
Meanwhile, the letter delivered to the university's chancellor discredited the so-called "Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety," an alternative safety agreement for garment workers in the country.
Working conditions in apparel factories used by companies associated with the alliance are still “very abusive,” Akter said, explaining that there are "no strict regulations (on) what they can and can't do."
"There is no role for worker representatives in the administration or governance of [the] program," the letter signed by Akter and Khanam states. "We do not understand how a worker safety program can possibly function when it denies workers and their representatives a voice in the process."
The worker-safety alliance is backed by companies such as Walmart, the Gap, and the American apparel and footwear firm VF Corporation, which has some 200 clothing manufacturing facilities in Bangladesh, Akter said.
“If VF Corporation is not willing to sign up for the accord, then the University [of Illinois at Chicago] should break ties with JanSport,” she stressed.
Khanam, who made about $120 a month working as a Rana Plaza garment worker, is "terrified of going back to garment factories because of what she went through," her translator said. She was trapped for about 12 hours under a machine after the building crumbled to the ground nearly a year ago. Khanam suffered injuries to her chest and hip.
While employed at Rana Plaza, Khanam had to work from 8 a.m. to midnight every day, she said. And sometimes she was forced to work until 3 a.m.
“There was no peace of mind there. It wasn’t easy to work there,” Khanam explained. "They used to be verbally and physically abusive to us if we missed our targets for work. My target was 100 to 150 pieces [of clothing] an hour."
Just shy of the Rana Plaza disaster's one-year anniversary, Khanam has yet to receive any compensation from the Bangladeshi government or from the clothing brands with ties to the factory.
Overall, Strain noted that most Bangladeshi factory owners do not have the funds needed to make necessary safety repairs because "on a day-to-day basis, the brands are squeezing both the factories and the workers to produce their goods at lower and lower prices."
"At the heart of this crisis of worker safety in Bangladesh is a system that global brands like Adidas, JanSport, Columbia Sportswear and others have put in place where they are putting so much price pressure on their factories in Bangladesh to reduce their goods at lower and lower prices," he said. "Not only are workers not paid living wages [and are] forced to work overtime, forced to meet extensive production quotas, but they're even forced to work in factories that are literally crumbling."
The UIC United Students Against Sweatshops sent a letter to the university's administration earlier this year, demanding that the school "cut ties with companies who do business in Bangladesh" and have not signed the fire and building safety agreement, said UIC student Martin Macias.
Student organizers noted that about 15 universities have signed the accord and require companies that make their licensed college apparel to adhere to the Bangladesh building-safety agreement. UIC is not an accord signatory.
At a more local level, organizers with the Chicago Workers' Collaborative who spoke at the discussion noted that temp workers in Illinois also find it difficult to secure safety in the workplace. They also struggle with low pay, lack of overtime compensation and other poor working conditions.
Temp workers have joined the collaborative to push for their own accord — a seven-point plan for reforming the temp staffing industry in Illinois. According to the group's website, the plan calls for fairness in hiring, a process for workers to raise concerns and no arbitrary firings or unfair discipline, to name a few.
"While we need better accords in other parts of the world, we also need them in Carol Stream, Elgin, Cicero, [and] Dolton," said Leone Bicchieri, executive director of the Chicago Workers' Collaborative. "You have a sweatshop ring around Chicago ... So it's sort of how do they exploit far away, and a littler closer to home as well."
A UIC spokesperson could not be reached for comment by deadline.