Vera Bradley president Rob Wallstrom claimed Monday that “multiple audits” showed that the brand’s goods were not produced in a Myanmar factory where 100 workers were fired for peacefully protesting and calling for safer working conditions during the COVID-19 crisis.
Wallstrom spoke about the issue after the Worker Rights Consortium issued a call to action that Vera Bradley remedy labor rights violations.
Wallstrom said the brand did not produce goods in the factory in question, but the WRC disagrees. He said the company has been in touch with the WRC since early June about the allegations.
He also disputed the WRC’s claim that the two imprisoned workers from the Blue Diamond World factory had been producing goods for Vera Bradley. There are also four local labor rights advocates who have been imprisoned since early May, according to the WRC. Their incarceration allegedly stemmed from a criminal complaint filed by the factory’s management in retaliation for their exercising their right to peacefully protest to protect factory workers’ health, safety and welfare during the COVID-19 pandemic. The WRC claims that 100 other factory workers have been terminated by its operator, Rongson Myanmar, in retaliation for the protests.
Vera Bradley’s supplier, Rongson, shares the same physical address as Blue Diamond, which was located in an adjacent building or on the same campus. Blue Diamond World’s workforce was made up of Rongson employees, the WRC said. But Wallstrom disagreed, adding that “multiple audits have been done with internal and external auditors,” he said. “We are very concerned about these allegations. Nothing is more important to us than the integrity of our supply chain.“
Noting that he visits factories around the world to make sure that workers are being treated right, Wallstrom said he has been to another factory in Myanmar but not the one in question.
In March and April, more than 15,000 pounds of Vera Bradley wallets were said to be produced in the Myanmar factory, according to the WRC. Wallstrom claimed that Vera Bradley contracts production through Rongson. After auditing the location, he said that the company’s standards were being upheld.
Vera Bradley has allegedly asked the WRC “if there is any evidence of individuals, we will go back and check the payroll of the factory that we use to make sure that the multiple auditors are correct,” Wallstrom said.
The WRC is urging the brand to require Rongson to secure the workers’ and advocates’ immediate release from prison, provide compensation, dismiss all criminal charges, appeal and reverse all charges against them and reinstate the 100-plus fired workers.
The WRC alleged that workers have provided photographs of labels from the Vera Bradley wallets made there and company documents showing their employment by Rongson. Wallstrom claimed that such information has not been shared with Vera Bradley.
“Now labels, right, you can take pictures anywhere. It’s on the same campus. What I don’t know is did they take someone, who used to work for us and bring them over to a new factory, and they brought stuff over. I don’t know that. But I know the ones that were employed by us, based on everything we looked at, were not involved with this,” he said.
Having already expressed to the ownership group that Vera Bradley is not pleased with how the other workers were treated, Wallstrom said it is not in the company’s power to change it. However, rather than close the factory in question, relocate and subsequently cause the workers to be fired, Vera Bradley plans to continue to manufacture there. Wallstrom alleged that the WRC is trying to do “a public campaign to get us to do something that is out of our control and damaging the reputation that we have worked for 30 years to protect.”
In response to the WRC’s request that Vera Bradley remedy the labor rights violations at Blue Diamond World, Wallstrom said, “We’ll do anything we can for our workers, but we can’t do anything for workers working for a different brand…we want to help, but it’s hard to help with a factory that is not ours besides explaining to the owner that we’re not satisfied with it.”
The WRC later disagreed, issuing the following statement, “The obfuscations of Vera Bradley’s ceo cannot hide the fact that a Vera Bradley’s Myanmar supplier, Rongson, has committed severe and ongoing labor rights violations against Rongson employees, who made Vera Bradley wallets, and that Vera Bradley has stood by and allowed these abuses to continue, by failing to enforce its own supplier code of conduct.”
On Thursday, the two imprisoned workers and four advocates were released from jail but they still face criminal charges, according to the WRC. The group is still calling on Vera Bradley to have Rongson withdraw its complaints against those six individuals.
On Friday, Rongson offered reinstatement to the two workers that were imprisoned and 100 Blue Diamond World factory workers that were fired. Via e-mail, the WRC urged Vera Bradley to pay those workers back pay for the period that they were terminated and/or jailed, and provide additional compensation for the six people, who had been imprisoned.
Vera Bradley declined further comment Friday through a company spokeswoman.
This story was updated on July 31.