Cards United Against Sweatshops outside Pres. Ramsey's office during March 3 protest (photo by James El-Mallakh)
Cards United Against Sweatshops and Mahinur Gegum — a survivor of the Raza Plaza collapse — outside President Ramsey’s office during their March 3 protest of JanSport and parent company VF Corp. | Photo by James El-Mallakh

Since last year, University of Louisville student group Cards United Against Sweatshops has pressured school officials to drop its contract with apparel maker JanSport, which is owned by VF Corp. At issue is the refusal of those companies to join the 180 brands who have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh — a binding agreement between companies and unions to improve the safety and conditions of garment workers in that country following the Raza Plaza factory collapse of 2013 that killed more than 1,100 workers and injured 2,000 more.

In response to the student campaign, on Thursday U of L sent a letter to all of its licensees explaining that any company making apparel in Bangladesh would be required to sign the accord in order to do business with the university. Those who have not signed the accord by April 30 will have their contract terminated by U of L.

University spokesman Mark Hebert tells Insider Louisville the decision was made because of a commitment to being socially responsible and was in response to the information provided by the students.

“We’re concerned, as others are, about the working conditions in Bangladesh,” says Hebert. “And obviously the students that we’ve been meeting with over the past several months have raised this issue and kept us fully aware of them, so we’ve responded in kind.”

However, this announcement by U of L comes with a catch. Hebert tells Insider Louisville the contract with JanSport — which was the target of the students’ campaign — will not be affected by this change in policy. While JanSport’s parent company VF Corp. is a large apparel manufacturer in Bangladesh, he says JanSport does not make any apparel in that country, so they remain exempt from the new requirement whether they sign the accord or not.

Rebecca Peek, a member of Cards United Against Sweatshops, tells IL the group is not satisfied by the university’s action and will continue its campaign until the contract is pulled from JanSport.

“Our stance is that JanSport is part of VF, as it’s one of their largest companies,” says Peek. “So it doesn’t matter that JanSport doesn’t produce in Bangladesh, it’s the fact that their parent company does, and college students have leverage over their parent company through JanSport.”

Peek says university officials contacted their group last night and suggested the new policy met the students’ demands, but did not mention that JanSport’s contract would remain in place

“I think it’s a strategy on their part to look like they’re meeting students’ demands, but they’re not,” says Peek. “It’s not a win if they don’t cut from JanSport. VF is a huge manufacturer in Bangladesh, and it matters that the university is giving that company money through JanSport.”

Hebert adds that U of L had one licensee making apparel in Bangladesh that had not signed the accord, but that company notified the university yesterday they would do so now.

On March 3, roughly 40 students with Cards United Against Sweatshops marched into President James Ramsey’s office to demand a meeting with him to make their case for ending the university’s contract with JanSport. Joining them was Mahinur Begum, a Bangladeshi woman who was trapped and seriously injured in the Raza Plaza collapse. The next day, the group says they delivered three binders full of labor violations by VF Corp. to Ramsey’s office, in response to a request for more information.

The U of L student group is part of the national United Students Against Sweatshops campaign to force universities to cut off ties with VF Corp. due to its refusal to sign the Bangladesh accord and the track record of poor working conditions in the Asian supply chain. As of February, 25 universities have made signing the accord required for licensees, and 16 have terminated contracts with either JanSport or VF, including Penn State, Florida and Arizona State. Michigan State made a virtually identical decision to that of U of L last November, requiring companies to sign onto the accord but keeping on JanSport.

The Raza Plaza factory collapse in the capital Bangladesh on Apr. 24, 2013, which killed over 1,100 workers and injured over 2,000 (photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
The Raza Plaza factory collapse in the capital Bangladesh on Apr. 24, 2013. | Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after the creation of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh in 2013, VF Corp. and other large American companies such as Walmart and Gap created an alternative program called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. However, numerous workers’ rights groups have ridiculed that organization as a public relations front that has no meaningful impact on working conditions in the Bangladeshi garment industry.

Adidas, which signed a 5-year $35 million contract with U of L last year, signed on to the original and now university-required Bangladesh accord in 2013.

Below is a copy of the letter U of L sent out to licensees yesterday notifying them of the new university policy:

U of L Bangladesh Accord letter

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]