By CANTON WINER
Over 1,000 people were killed when the Rana Plaza factory complex collapsed in Bangladesh in April. The collapse is widely considered the deadliest garment factory accident in history and the deadliest accidental structural failure in modern history. United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), one of Fordham’s newest student groups, wants students to know that the next sweatshop disaster could occur in a factory producing Fordham apparel.
USAS is a youth-led student labor campaign organization active on over 150 campuses in the United States and Canada. The group is new to Fordham this year — so new that it does not yet have official club status. Fordham USAS started in September when Caitlin MacLaren, a senior at NYU and a regional organizer for USAS, began recruiting Fordham students.
“Part of my work as a regional organizer is to reach out to other schools,” MacLaren said. “It’s hard to say how many members there are at Fordham right now, but as of last meeting, there were maybe 15 people.”
Fordham USAS may be small, but the group has already began to protest sweatshop labor on campus. On Oct. 9, the group delivered a letter to the office of Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of the university, asking him to take action against the use of sweatshop labor in producing Fordham apparel.
“Given the gravity of the disasters that have occurred in the garment industry in the last year alone, we feel that you have an obligation to adhere to the core values of one of America’s leading institutions of higher education, and to the wishes of members of this school’s community, by immediately instituting these requirements of licenses to ensure the safety of workers producing collegiate apparel,” the letter read.
The letter requested a meeting with McShane within two weeks. USAS members say they have yet to receive a response.
“We gave the letter to an assistant,” Evelyn No, FCRH ’16 and president of Fordham USAS, said. “They haven’t gotten back to us, unfortunately. We were hoping to set up a meeting with Fr. McShane, but obviously that’s not entirely practical. We just want to meet with someone. We don’t want to be like, ‘You should stop this now,’ but just to make them aware of the situation.”
McShane’s office did not respond to requests for comment before The Fordham Ram went to press on Wednesday.
Despite the lack of response from McShane’s office, group members said that this is merely the beginning for USAS at Fordham.
“This is step one,” Evan Grassi, FCRH ’15, said. “We’ll figure [it]out from there.”
USAS members said that they expect the issue will gain importance among students as they become more aware of the situation. The group plans to hold bi-weekly meetings and is in the early stages of planning an awareness campaign at Rose Hill.
“I think this is a serious topic that Fordham is going to really care about,” No said. “I’m optimistic about making our generation aware of these issues.”
Thousands of people have been killed or injured in the last 10 years alone in sweatshops. USAS members have expressed concern over the perceived lack of public awareness.
“It’s not really an issue that everyone sees on the news every day, but it’s still a really big problem,” No said. “Before I joined USAS I hadn’t heard anything about [recent sweatshop disasters], which is kind of terrifying. I mean, these are huge tragedies with many lost lives.”
Many American clothing corporations — including Nike, Wal-Mart, Reebok and Gap — have come under fire recently for outsourcing manufacturing through the use of sweatshops. These corporations contract manufacturing firms to produce their goods instead of producing the goods in their company-owned factories. This separates the company from the production of goods, allowing them to claim that they are unaware and, therefore, not responsible for conditions in the factories where their products are made.
DoSomething.org, a not-for-profit site aimed at young people that advocates for various causes, including the anti-sweatshop movement, alleges that these companies shirk responsibility for unsafe and unfair working conditions under false pretense in the pursuit of high profit margins.
“Because corporations demand extremely low prices for merchandise, the manufacturers, with profit in forefront of their minds, cut the wages of their employees and compromise their safety,” DoSomething.org said on its website. “American companies get away with these types of business practices because the U.S. Labor Department requires only internal monitoring.”
Sweatshops are fairly widespread throughout the developing world, and many governments ignore poor workplace conditions in order to remain economically appealing to corporations looking for cheap labor.
Some governments have been accused of intimidating, and even torturing, those who advocate for improved working conditions. Human Rights Watch, for example, has expressed that it is “gravely concerned about serious allegations of torture and mistreatment” of labor rights advocates by Bangladeshi police officers.
While this problem persists well beyond Fordham’s gates, USAS members argue that students can begin making a difference on their own campuses.
“I don’t expect these sweatshops to disappear overnight,” No said. “USAS is realistic. But, if Fordham can put pressure on JanSport or any major company that uses sweatshop labor in other countries, that’s a main goal.”
Fordham USAS members said they expect to continue raising awareness on campus and pushing the issue with university administration. The group plans to start a student-driven petition asking Fordham administration to stop selling apparel made by companies that use sweatshop labor.
“This is such a serious situation that should be discussed and dealt with,” No said. “The average student should care about this issue, and Fordham needs to know.”
[UPDATE] Jeffrey Gray, senior vice president for student affairs, said in an email to The Fordham Ram on Nov. 4 that he has read the letter from Fordham USAS. He said the letter was forwarded to his office from the McShane’s office.
“I have read the letter, and have responded to the student that submitted it, thanking her for sharing the concerns with us, and letting her know that my office would be responding,” Gray said. “I also clarified that Fordham is a member of the Worker’s Rights Consortium, and has been for many years. We monitor issues, such as those that were raised in their communication, through these channels. I let the writer know that I would be gathering additional information on the issues raised, and would reach out to her when I had this information in hand to schedule a meeting. In the interim, I invited her to contact me, or Dean Rodgers with any questions.”