Groups push Pitt to commit to workers’ rights


Reba Sikder heard a loud boom at work one morning as the building collapsed around her. Sikder doesn’t know how long she remained unconscious, but woke up to find her feet trapped under a machine.

When she regained consciousness, she heard a nearby co-worker who was trapped under a beam. Bleeding, he begged her for help.

“I told him, ‘Brother I can’t help you, I am stuck too,’” Sikder said. “A few minutes later he died.”

Although Sikder eventually managed to free herself and was later rescued by the Bangladeshi army, the co-worker Sikder heard dying was one of more than 1,100 garment workers killed when the Rana Plaza building — located in a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city — collapsed last April. 

Sikder spoke Tuesday night alongside Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, also from Bangladesh. Two Pitt student groups, Americans for Informed Democracy and South Asian Student Association, hosted the event. Sikder, who now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, was crying by the time she finished relaying her experiences. 

Akter discussed the problems in Bangladesh, where workers live on some of the lowest wages in the world and often face intimidation, violence or risk of losing their jobs if they attempt to unionize.

Although the national activist organization United Students Against Sweatshops organized the tour that included the two Bangladeshi women’s visit to Pitt’s campus, the visit was well-timed for some members of AID and the No Sweat Coalition, a broad alliance of campus groups that advocate for the rights of workers who make Pitt apparel. The groups used the event to encourage students and community members to support one of their ongoing initiatives.

Since last semester, these groups have pushed for Pitt to join a growing list of universities that require their apparel licensees to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a measure University officials say they are currently considering.

Joe Thomas, an organizer for AID, said that more than 160 students and faculty members signed the petitions that members of the No Sweat Coalition distributed after Sikder and Akter spoke. The petitions urged Pitt officials to adopt the accord.

According to the Bangladesh Accord Foundation, a group founded to administer the agreement, the accord is a legally binding agreement between international labor unions, labor groups within Bangladesh and more than 150 of the apparel companies and brands that buy clothes from suppliers located there.

Labor activists say the accord, which labor groups drafted in May 2013 after the disaster at Rana Plaza, will better protect Bangladeshi workers.

In addition to multiple garment factories, the eight-story building also housed the branch of a bank and several shops, but employees of these businesses were not working because of the perceived danger, according to media reports. 

Sikder, 19, said that on the day the building collapsed, managers at the factories in the building threatened workers that they would lose their jobs if they refused to return to work.

Akter pointed out that the Rana Plaza was so horrific, it largely eclipsed the memory of a fire that killed more than 100 workers at the Tazreen Fashions factory, also located in Dhaka, in November 2012. The fire exit in the factory was locked and the fire extinguishers did not work, according to media reports.

Provisions of the agreement address such oversights — which garment factory owners and managers often encourage to cut operating costs — by requiring apparel companies that sign it to conduct safety inspections of their suppliers located in Bangladesh. If clothing suppliers must close a factory for maintenance, the companies that buy clothing from the factory must continue to pay workers in the meantime.

The accord also calls for the creation of a committee including representatives from garment companies and labor organizations. The committee would be responsible for appointing an independent chief of safety inspections who could only be fired in the event of serious misconduct, and this official would be responsible for making sure brands follow the terms of the agreement.

According to Thomas, such measures serve as an incentive for workers to report unsafe conditions rather than to fear reprisal or loss of pay.

“The accord has very specific mechanisms to make sure corporations pay their fair share,” Thomas, a senior majoring in biology and political science, said.

The agreement also requires companies that sign the agreement to continue to buy clothing from the same factories they used before signing. For at least two years after signing the agreement, companies must buy as much or more apparel at each factory they use in Bangladesh as they did the year before signing the agreement.

Thomas and other members of AID and the No Sweat Coalition began to meet frequently last semester with Lori Burens, Pitt’s director of licensing, after Pitt joined the Worker Rights Consortium, a monitoring group for the rights of workers who make university apparel, in August.

At the meetings, which Thomas said took place every week or two weeks, Burens and the other students discussed ways to ensure the safety of workers who make Pitt’s licensed apparel. The Accord on Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh came up in these meetings.

Thomas and Burens have their first meeting this semester scheduled for Friday. 

Aside from the meetings, Thomas and other members of the No Sweat Coalition have made sugar-coated appeals directly to Chancellor Mark Nordenberg.

University officials have yet to make a final decision.

“The University is reviewing the Bangladesh Accord and will notify the students when a decision has been made,” Burens said in an email.

If Pitt does follow the students’ requests, it will join at least six other universities that have made signing the accord a requirement for their licensees.

Duke University announced such a move in a public statement last October that reported its licensees would have to sign the accord.

The University of Pennsylvania, Temple University and New York University announced in December that they, too, would require licensees to sign the accord.

Pennsylvania State University, Georgetown University and Cornell University issued similar statements earlier this month.

Thomas said last December that he and other student activists dropped off gingerbread houses at Nordenberg’s office because they “wanted to do something cute” that would allude to building safety for workers.

Thomas said he and the others tried their best to make the gingerbread houses sturdy. But all of the houses came out looking sloppy and poorly made — perhaps fittingly for a gesture meant to raise awareness of the unsafe conditions many garment workers face.

Last Friday, Thomas and others dropped off cookies at Nordenberg’s office to draw his attention to the accord.

Akter said she wanted to see consumers in the United States pressure apparel companies to look out for the safety of workers at the factories where the companies buy clothes.

“We are here to tell that we need these jobs, but we want these jobs with dignity,” she said.