By Brock Meade, student at the University of Kentucky
Last week, over 75 members of the campus and civic communities of Lexington, Kentucky gathered to remember the 112 dead and 150 injured victims of last month’s Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and demand UK affiliation with the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring organization that has led the way in advocating for meaningful fire safety measures to protect garment workers. Beyond remembrance, our vigil was about calling on all brands like Adidas in the global apparel industry to take responsibility for their subcontracted workers and prevent more senseless tragedies like the fire at Tazreen.
Each of the vigil attendees signed a petition in support of WRC affiliation. Speakers included students as well as former Honduran garment worker Soreyda Benedit-Begley, Director of the Lexington Fashion Collaborative, and former Bangladesh resident Syed Zahadul Islam, PhD student in chemical engineering at the University. The Candlelight Vigil was marked by such songs as “We Shall Overcome”, led by student and community members.
As a third-party labor rights watchdog organization, the WRC is unique in that it accepts no corporate funding and emphasizes confidentiality in its interviews with workers. Its governing board is comprised of five students, five community members, and five administrators who receive reports from on-the-ground WRC field investigators. Using these repots, universities can make informed decisions about whether or not brands are abiding by their labor code of conduct. According to UK’s Labor Code Standards, every Licensee’s employee shall be “treated with dignity and respect.” What better way to respect workers than to affiliate with a labor rights monitor that emphasizes confidentiality and cares about supporting workers.
Currently, the University of Kentucky is affiliated with the Fair Labor Association (the FLA), an industry-funded corporate monitor. Now more than ever, it’s clear that corporate monitors like the FLA do not work. Back in September, a Karachi Pakistan factory fire claimed the lives of nearly 300, just weeks after being inspected by Social Accountability International, another corporate-funded monitor.
It’s time for UK to join over 180 other universities (and 5 high schools) in affiliating with the WRC to ensure factory fires like those in Pakistan and Bangladesh never happen again. We remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 as a watershed moment in transforming the US garment industry from sweatshops to safe, good-paying industrial jobs. We are calling on UK to recognize its moral responsibility to respond to the tragedy at Tazreen by affiliating with the Workers Rights Consortium.
Last week, students and citizens came together in solidarity with Bangladeshi garment workers, and workers all over the world. We set aside time to grieve with them, but now we join them in organizing. As we extinguished the flames of our candles, we do not extinguish our drive to fundamentally reshape the global garment industry. We walked away from that night remembering four very important words: together, we shall overcome.