On April 24, 2013, on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital and largest city, Dhaka, an eight-story commercial building called Rana Plaza collapsed. The building, which contained a bank, a mosque, shops, apartments, and five clothing factories, had been evacuated the day before because of cracks that had appeared in the walls and columns that were so prominent they made the evening news. But the next morning, the clothing factory managers ordered the 3,000 factory workers back inside at the beginning of their shifts, threatening to cut their wages if they refused and reassuring them that the building was safe. The building collapsed later that morning, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring more than 2,500 others.

The scale of the tragedy along with two factory fires that caused fatalities in other clothing factories in Bangladesh grabbed international headlines and the world’s attention. Labor issues and factory conditions have long been the focus of LSA lecturer Ian Robinson’s research and coursework. Robinson teaches courses such as Ethical Consumption and Community Action, and he also serves as the faculty advisor to United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) Local #17, the student labor organization on campus.

Supply Chain Power

According to Robinson’s research, most people have a basic understanding of sweatshops; however, understanding why so much clothing comes from sweatshops now, when it did not 40 years ago, is less clear. “Fundamentally, it’s about the way the global supply chains link factories in the global South to consumers in the global North,” explains Robinson, and how power within the chain is concentrated above the equator. There is a power inequality between the factory owners who employ the workers who make the clothes and another power imbalance between the factory owners and the retailers at the top of the chain reaping the majority of the profits.

“In labor language we talk about whipsawing,” says Robinson. “The workers are played off against one another by the factories. The factory owners are played off each other by the brands and retailers. That’s why Rana Plaza happened: The workers felt they couldn’t say no, but so did the factory owners.”

Consumer Activism

In the mid 1990s, both Gap and Nike changed the way they manufactured their clothing due to pressure created by non-governmental organizations supporting workers’ rights, such as International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), as well as consumer threats to boycott their products. Activists, including Robinson, hope that outrage over the tragedy at Rana Plaza can create even more substantial, sustainable improvements to safety conditions for workers worldwide.

“The level of sustained media coverage of Rana Plaza, because of the scale of the disaster, was unprecedented,” Robinson says. “Fifteen hundred people dying in factories in a single year, in a single country, really showed people that the systems the companies had set up to monitor themselves and meet safety standards were completely ineffective. Consumers said, clearly this isn’t working. You’ve got to do something else. The international labor organizations took that feeling, transformed it into a set of clear, practical reform demands, and negotiated hard with the big European and US brands and retailers. Out of that process emerged the Bangladesh Accord.”

The Bangladesh Accord—formally known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh—is a five-year agreement between retailers, non-governmental organizations, and labor organizations that was developed in response to Rana Plaza’s collapse. The Accord, says Robinson, has been well designed. It includes international union federations and international labor organizations, and “they’ve figured out how to close the major loopholes that might have allowed the effort to improve workers’ lives to be circumvented.”

The accord has garnered significant support since it was created, and it has a growing number of signatories from multinational corporations, from factories, and, this month, from University of Michigan.

As of April 2, 2014, U-M requires companies that manufacture U-M apparel to sign the Bangladesh Accord.
Photo by Rob Hess.

Students Help to Bring U-M Into Accord

On April 2, 2014, President Mary Sue Coleman announced that U-M will require its apparel licensees to sign the Bangladesh Accord. The request was initially brought before President Coleman by USAS, and was reviewed and ultimately recommended by the President’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights.

“U-M’s adoption of the Bangladesh Accord sends an important signal,” says Robinson. “U-M is one of the top five licensers of collegiate apparel in the entire country in any given year. Our joining will hopefully be a green light for others to get on board. And it’s really the students who are responsible.

“The students worked to get us a Fair Labor Association Code of Conduct in 2001,” continues Robinson. “They got the Worker Rights Consortium created in 2006, and then, most recently, they encouraged the president to sign onto the Bangladesh Accord. Each stage in the process has been driven by a relatively small group of students that claimed to have the support of the majority of students on their campus, and had real legitimacy when they made that claim.

“Many of us are bystanders with respect to most things happening in the world,” he concludes. “Lacking infinite time and resources, we have to pick our fights. But on certain issues, all of us need to stop being bystanders and commit ourselves to tip the balance toward justice. In my opinion, this is one of those issues. 

“The Bangladesh Accord is an opportunity to turn the Rana Plaza tragedy into something that can benefit a lot of people—in Bangladesh and beyond. ”