UW and worker safety in Bangladesh

There’s a serious discussion taking place on colleges and university campuses over the issue of licensed apparel and the textile workers in Bangladesh. On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza factory collapsed, killing more than 1,100 factory workers.

The question revolves around how to respond in order to make a real difference rather than to simply create publicity.

The tragedy resulted in the creation of two organizations made up of European and American retailers and brands. Both have the goal of improving the fire and safety standards of Bangladesh garment factories.

No UW-Madison products were produced at Rana Plaza.

To avoid future such tragedies, the university has affiliated with one of the groups, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, with the goal of having UW licensees that source in Bangladesh contribute to improving the safety of working conditions in Bangladesh factories. UW licensees must join the Accord if they produce or source in Bangladesh and want to remain a licensee.

Over the past decade, our commitment to the issue of worker safety has been very strong. I am proud that our students, faculty and staff care about this issue and prioritize it.

I take very seriously our responsibility to ensure that garments and goods that are produced with the UW brand and trademarks are produced in accordance with our Code of Conduct.

Time and again, the university has employed a fact and evidence- based approach that resulted in action whenever appropriate.

In recent months, I have been called upon to sever ties with Appleton, Wisconsin-based JanSport, a licensee that employs 800 Wisconsinites and has had a 25-year relationship with UW-Madison. The firm makes backpacks, apparel and other gear that you frequently see around our campus.

Some argue that because the company’s corporate parent, VF Corp., operates in Bangladesh that JanSport, its subsidiary, should also be compelled to join the Accord or lose its relationship with UW.

In this case, the evidence and facts don’t back up these claims.

First, JanSport does not source, produce or purchase in Bangladesh. Furthermore, they have control over where they do source. This is a decision made by JanSport and not by their parent company.

UW works directly with licensees and does not hold subsidiaries responsible for their parent companies. In fact, the legal liability typically runs the other direction.

VF Corp. is a member of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, the other organization also operating on behalf of Bangladeshi workers.

Like the Accord, the Alliance has inspected all factories from which its members source. The inspections have resulted in the full or partial closure of 19 factories that were deemed unsafe, according to its reports.

I wrote a letter last year giving more details on the reasons not to include JanSport on the list of licensees required to sign the Accord.

I also invite you to review the respective web sites of the two organizations enforcing factory safety in Bangladesh: www.bangladeshaccord.org and www.bangladeshworkersafety.org.

I’m open to the idea of both the Accord and the Alliance making a difference in Bangladesh. Both organizations can have a positive impact on the lives of workers.

It is in the long-term interest of this university to make balanced judgments about relationships with our licensees. Threatening to withdraw our business from a Wisconsin-based company that generates jobs in this state – and which has no ties to Bangladesh – can harm our productive relationships with other licensees and the state’s business community.

The just and equitable production of our licensed products remains the shared goal of the university’s administration, students, faculty and staff.