During Weekend on the Square, Washington Square Park was inundated with the fresh faces of prospective students. Attracted to NYU for of its image as a global university, the accepted students seemed oblivious to NYU’s reliance on global injustices.
Little did the prospective students know that the NYU clothing they excitedly purchased was partiallly financially supported by the continued existence of sweatshops in Bangladesh, where people are required to labor in severely inhumane conditions — insufficient pay, physically and emotionally unsafe working environments and consistent intimidation from supervisors and managers. On April 24, 2013, a factory building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers. One day after they refused to enter their factory due to cracks in the walls. The Rana Plaza Collapse prompted consumers and labor rights groups to demand that brands sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement that requires brands to cooperate with unions and an independent inspector to fix unsafe factories.
Last semester, the Student Labor Action Movement successfully campaigned for NYU to change its code of conduct to require that all companies with connections to Bangladeshi factories sign this accord. However, one company has managed to slip through the cracks — VF Corporation, a clothing corporation that owns several brands including The North Face, Eastpak and JanSport.
VF produces in nearly 100 factories in Bangladesh that have a dismal safety record, including an incident where 29 workers died in a fire. Yet VF has refused to sign this agreement. JanSport, a subsidiary of VF, produces NYU merchandise, but our administration has refused to cut its contract with JanSport. Some would defend VF by saying that these factories are a necessary evil. These factories, they argue, provide jobs overseas and cheap clothing, sustaining the competitive market and enriching the world. However, these are not just factories, they are sweatshops.
Factories are necessary for the existence of jobs in these impoverished and developing nations. The workers at Rana Plaza may have desperately needed jobs, but that does not justify the ruthless and extreme exploitation they had to endure. Our need for cheap clothing has resulted in the deaths of thousands. We cannot build our markets on the suffering of others.
We have also heard the argument from the administration that JanSport and VF are distinct entities, therefore JanSport cannot be held accountable for VF’s missteps. However, VF manages sourcing relationships with factories that make JanSport products and its labor compliance program covers JanSport factories. This tie does not make it seem as though they two distinct companies. We cannot build our university on the suffering of others. Currently, NYU Abu Dhabi is expanding using workers who live in labor camps. This is yet another blatant infringement of human rights that NYU endorses. By exploiting the workers in Abu Dhabi and refusing to cut its contract with JanSport, NYU is failing to fulfill its promises as a global university that stands for the rights of all humans. As the largest private academic institution in the United States, NYU has to set an example for other universities that plan to expand globally.
The Student Labor Action Movement refuses to stand by passively while these injustices continue. We have been actively campaigning against this culture and history of labor injustice at NYU, and we will continue to do so until NYU ends its connection with sweatshop exploitation.
Iraj Eshghi and Claris Park are members of NYU SLAM. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.