In late July, I was one of a dozen students and community members that protested at the flagship store of Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) over the retailer’s failure to end its relationship with The The North Face, a company tied to human rights abuses. We informed customers about the failures of The North Face and its parent company, VF Corporation, one of the largest apparel producers in Bangladesh. The corporation has 91 factories employing more than 190,000 garment workers in the country. The corporation produces clothes for companies that are well-known: Lee, Wrangler, Timberland, Jansport, Vans and Smartwool.
Four years ago, a VF factory that produces clothing for That’s It Sportswear caught fire in Bangladesh and killed 29 workers and injured another 100. This past July, there was yet another fire in a long-time VF supplier factory, injuring and hospitalizing several workers. Time and time again, The North Face/VF has been connected to factories with unresolved human rights issues, despite the company’s questionable claims that all of their factories passed safety inspection standards.
The protests have been part of a nonviolent campaign undertaken by members and alumni of the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). The organization is running a campaign to improve factory safety conditions in Bangladesh in light of recent deadly factory disasters, such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse last year that killed 1,132 workers. We hope REI can convince The North Face/VF to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding contract with garment worker unions.
For nearly one year, USAS has held dozens of demonstrations at The North Face stores, and we’ve successfully pressured 14 U.S. universities, including Washington State University, to cut ties with VF. But The North Face hasn’t budged on the issue. Since REI sells The North Face clothing, we’re focusing on REI.
It’s a sad but sobering reality that we all need to acknowledge: Numerous multinational apparel companies pay poverty wages and contract with unsafe workplaces. When workers organize to change conditions at any number of factories, they are often fired or intimidated. Sometimes, the response is much worse: The New York Times reported that in 2012, a Bangladeshi labor organizer who had protested against low wages in the garment industry was found murdered.
The local demonstration by USAS in July was part of a national day of action where students protested at more than 30 REI stores across the country.
In one store, more than 20 students were arrested when they blocked cash registers and refused to allow the sale of The North Face apparel during an act of civil disobedience.
Participants are organizing alongside Bangladeshi worker unions that are demanding dignified and safe working conditions.
USAS wants The North Face/VF to protect workers’ lives by signing the accord, a contract formed by international worker unions and groups that has been signed by more than 175 brands and retailers around the world.
It is the only agreement of its kind that gives Bangladeshi workers and their unions the power to enforce safe working conditions in factories.
Instead of signing on, VF has joined forces with Wal-Mart to create a company-controlled, non-binding agreement called the “Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety,” which has been criticized by workers’ rights groups for its lack of meaningful inclusion of garment workers and their unions, and its failure to require brands to pay a single cent toward the repair and renovation of unsafe factories.
The North Face/VF’s refusal to accept legally binding responsibility for worker safety has placed it among the most regressive companies in the global apparel industry.
At this point, 14 universities have cut ties with VF over its human rights abuses in Bangladesh. If these universities can take a stand against The North Face sweatshops, we believe REI can, too.