WASHINGTON — A garment worker who survived the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh last April said Wednesday that she cannot work as a result of her injuries and is touring the U.S. with labor and worker’s rights groups to pressure universities to require their collegiate apparel licensees to sign the legally binding Accord for Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh.
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The accord said Wednesday that it had reached its 150-signatory mark while the International Labor Rights Forum released a 50-page report charging that U.S. military exchanges are “turning a blind eye” to working conditions in Bangladeshi garment factories.
The Rana Plaza collapse claimed the lives of 1,132 garment workers. Reba Sikder, a former garment worker at the Ether Tex factory, is the first survivor to come to the U.S. and speak out about working conditions in the Asian nation’s garment industry.
Sikder, who is 18 years old, told WWD that she was trapped in the rubble of the complex for two-and-a-half days. Of the 30 coworkers who were trapped with her, she said only six survived. Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, acted as Sikder’s interpreter.
Sikder said she now suffers chronic pain and feels too much panic to work in tall buildings in Dhaka. She has only received the equivalent of $300 in compensation for her injuries and loss of work.
“We are giving a few messages to the universities and students,” Sikder said. “First, I share my story and I tell [them] brands have a responsibility and they should pay full and fair compensation. Think about the workers who lost their limbs. How are they going to survive? And think about their families who lost their beloved and the person who used to bring in the income. So the first round is asking for compensation and the second is getting university involvement to require their brands to sign the accord.”
Sikder and Akter are touring 15 U.S. universities until Feb. 21 as part of a growing student campaign to prod collegiate apparel brands to sign the accord.
Since September, United Students Against Sweatshops has successfully lobbied seven college-logo apparel brands, including Fruit of the Loom, Adidas, Knights Apparel, Top of the World and Zephyr headwear to sign the accord, according to Garrett Strain, international campaigns coordinator of USAS.
In addition, eight universities, including Cornell University, which made the announcement on Wednesday, have adopted new trademark-licensing policies that require their collegiate apparel licensees that produce apparel in Bangladesh to sign the binding five-year accord. The other seven universities are Georgetown University, Duke University, University of Pennsylvania, New York University, Temple University, Penn State and Columbia University.
Under the terms of the accord, signatory companies require factories to submit to independent inspections with full public reports, ensure factories undergo renovations with funding provided by the brands, end business relationships with factories refusing to make renovations, make a two-year commitment to remain in factories going through remediation and ensure a central role for workers and unions.
The accord, led by IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union, has member companies such as Inditex, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Carrefour, Primark and C&A. It said Wednesday that 150 companies have now signed on.
It also said it will expand its rollout of factory inspections to encompass more than 1,700 factories this year.
In related news, the ILRF released a report titled “Dangerous Silence: Why the U.S. Military Exchanges Need to Address Unsafe and Illegal Conditions in Their Supplier Factories,” charging that retail operations run by the U.S. government, known as military exchanges, are buying apparel from “unsafe and abusive factories in Bangladesh without investigating the working conditions.”
The exchanges sell about $1.5 billion worth of apparel and footwear annually, 90 percent of which is from overseas factories, according to the report. They operate more than 1,100 retail stores on military installations in all 50 states and more than 30 countries around the world.
The report said military exchanges depend on a “failed model” of retailers’ and apparel brands’ social audits of factories in Bangladesh to verify whether a factory is in compliance, instead of conducting their own independent audits and also “cut off relationships with suppliers when presented with evidence of violations, leaving workers behind in potential deathtraps.”
“In a year when the tragedies at Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions have spurred both governments and private retailers and apparel brands to take action for a safer Bangladeshi garment industry, retail operations run by the U.S. government can’t sit on the sideline,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum. “The federal government needs to own what’s going on in its supply chain and not rely on Wal-Mart, Sears or other industry audits.”