February 28, 2014

In accordance

The University of Chicago can and must do its part to raise standards in the garment industry.

On Wednesday, February 19th, students met with Michelle Rasmussen, Dean of Students in the University, and Elly Daugherty, Assistant Vice-President for Student Life and Associate Dean of the College, to discuss an earlier request made by a coalition of six RSO’s that the University require its apparel licensees to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The Accord is a vital document that takes real steps to bring more accountability to the garment industry in Bangladesh by requiring that brands hold two year contracts with factories, provide funding towards building safety, accept legal liability for labor violation cases in their home countries, and work with Bangladeshi unions. Given the string of tragedies that have taken place in the Bangladeshi garment industry, including the factory collapse at Rana Plaza last spring which killed more than one thousand workers, the need for industry-wide action is clear. Students entered this meeting to ask the University to do its part in making that happen.

In response to our concern about how UChicago apparel is manufactured, Deans Rasmussen and Daugherty proposed that we get in touch with Barnes & Noble about issues concerning what is sold in the Bookstore, and offered to facilitate that process. We appreciate that advice and intend to work with the Bookstore. However, we also asked the Deans to remember that the subject of the meeting was the question of whether the University itself will take a stand on the issue by making a statement affecting industry standards, not only what the Bookstore happens to sell at the moment.

By adopting the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the University would require all of its licensees that produce in Bangladesh to sign the Accord in order to keep their contracts with the University. If the University adopts the Accord it will not only have bearing on the brands currently sold in the Bookstore, but on any brands that might be sold in the future, or currently held brands that may begin producing in Bangladesh in the future. By adopting the Accord, our university would help define a new industry standard for which there is a desperate need. When students ask that our university adopt this Accord, we are asking for the University as an institution that represents us to take responsibility for the apparel industry of which it is a part.

Furthermore, we disagree with the Deans’ assertion that the fact that the University has subcontracted management of its Bookstore to Barnes & Noble might be a barrier to the University’s ability to require its apparel licensees to sign the Accord. Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State, Temple University, New York University, Duke University, Georgetown University, and Cornell University have all adopted the Accord. Of these eight, the first four also have bookstores managed by Barnes & Noble. This subcontracting relationship did not prevent these schools from acting on the urgent need for institutions to take a stand on how their apparel is made. We believe that our school should be able to do as much, and we hope that Dean Rasmussen or Daugherty will promptly reach out to administrators from these schools for more information if they are concerned how the University’s relationship with Barnes & Noble will affect this decision.

Unfortunately, our meeting with the Deans was not encouraging on that particular point. Dean Daugherty represents the University in the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), of which the University is a dues-paying affiliate. The WRC has recommended that all of its affiliates require their licensees to sign the Accord. As was mentioned, seven peer institutions have already done so. In spite of this fact, Dean Dougherty expressed a need to communicate with more schools about how they are managing the issue, but said that she will not attempt to do so until the WRC conference of affiliate schools in May.

When pressed on what the University itself would do regarding the Accord, Deans Rasmussen and Daugherty informed us that they did not have the power to unilaterally require the University’s apparel licensees to sign the Accord. However, they were unable to point us to any person or department that does manage how the University’s logo is used by outside companies.

How will we proceed with that answer? Dean Rasmussen told us to tell the Maroon that we will start working with Barnes & Noble as per their advice, and we are going to enter into more meetings with the Deans to discuss the next steps. Meanwhile, SOUL will be exploring other ways to monitor this situation until we win a commitment to adopt the Accord.

Miriam Shestack is a third-year in the college majoring in history.