How The North Face is endangering Bangladeshi garment workers
- VF Corporation is the largest maker of branded apparel in the world. VF is the parent company of 36 brands, including North Face, Vans, Timberland, Jansport, VF Imagewear, Wrangler, Lee, and Nautica.
- VF Corporation produces approximately 450 million units per year spread across 36 brands. VF operates 29 manufacturing facilities and uses approximately 1,900 contractor factories in 60 countries. In 2013, VF Corporation brought in $11.4 billion in revenue and $5.48 billion in gross profit.
- VF Corporation contracts with 90 factories in Bangladesh, employing over 190,000 garment workers.
- Eric Wiseman is the CEO of VF Corporation. In 2012, Mr. Wiseman received $14.2 million in compensation.
Worker Safety in Bangladesh
- VF was producing at That’s It Sportswear factory in Bangladesh (owned by Hameem Group), which burned in December of 2010, killing 29 workers and injuring more than a hundred. The factory had illegal construction, no proper fire exits, shoddy wiring, and many exit doors were locked. Workers were trapped on the top floors of the factory. Many jumped to their deaths. VF had repeatedly inspected the factory and yet had completely failed to address the safety hazards.
- In October of 2012, another VF factory, Eurotex, which was disclosed as a producer of collegiate apparel, burned in Dhaka. This was a major fire, though it did not completely destroy the factory. No one was killed in the fire, because the factory was closed for a holiday – if the fire had occurred during the workday, many could have died. When contacted about this fire, VF claimed that their own disclosure data was wrong and they had stopped using the factory.
- In August, the Worker Rights Consortium conducted a safety assessment of Optimum Fashion, a long-time VF contract factory producing collegiate apparel. After VF attempted to prevent the WRC from accessing the factory, the WRC’s inspection uncovered a number of very serious safety hazards, all of which constitute violations of university code of conduct provisions requiring licensees to maintain safe workplaces and any of which could result in injury or death to workers. These violations “included inadequate means for workers to escape the factory in the event of a fire and structural flaws that would facilitate the rapid and widespread propagation of deadly smoke throughout the factory building.”
- On June 20, 2014, several workers were injured during a fire at Medlar Apparels, a factory that has supplied VF apparel as far back as 2007, according to customs data. This fire occurred after VF claimed to numerous U.S. universities that it had “completed 100% of inspections at Bangladeshi factories where VF product is sourced.”
- Despite its sizeable presence in Bangladesh and evidence of mishandling of safety hazards in its factories, VF Corporation has refused to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord, a legally-binding agreement between brands and unions – now signed by more than 150 brands and retailers – that holds the promise of bringing an end to the mass fatality disasters in Bangladesh garment factories.
- Rather than signing the Accord, VF has joined forces with Walmart and the Gap to create a corporate-controlled, non-binding agreement called the “Alliance for Worker Safety.” Unions and labor rights advocates have critiqued this program for its exclusion of workers and their representatives and its failure to obligate brands to pay a single cent toward the repair and renovation of unsafe factories.
Crisis of Compliance in VF Corporation’s Supply Chain
- In December 2010, four Bangladeshi garment workers died and 100 were injured in clashes with police outside a factory owned by the Korean-based YoungOne group, a major producer of North Face and owner of the rights to North Face in Korea. At issue was failure of the YoungOne factory to implemented a new minimum wage increase.
- In February 2012, the Hawkins Apparel factory in Honduras, which produced non-collegiate apparel for several buyers, including the VF Corporation and Jerry Leigh, closed without paying workers approximately $300,000 in legally-mandated compensation. After the factory closure, the WRC contacted Disney, one of Jerry Leigh’s licensors, and VF Corporation. While Jerry Leigh contributed over $250,000 to the Hawkins workers, VF Corporation refused to pay a single cent of severance.
- On February 21, 2013, union leaders at E Garment, a supplier of collegiate apparel for VF Corporation, were violently attacked during a peaceful strike by thugs in collusion with factory management. Following repeated efforts to press VF to take action, VF agreed to intervene with the factory and told the WRC that corrective action, including rehiring of workers who were illegally fired, would be taken. However, VF did not agree to all of the actions necessary to correct the violations. Shortly thereafter, an agreement was signed between the factory, CCAWDU union officers and the Fair Labor Association that included provisions that violated Cambodian law and university codes. Of note, the agreement illegally revoked the right of the striking E garment workers and union members to return to work when the strike ended.
- VF contracts with factories in Haiti where wage theft in the garment industry has increased to the point where workers are being denied 1/3 of their legally-due wages. Earlier this year, Better Work Haiti reported that every single one of the country’s export garment factories was violating the country’s legal minimum wage. While other companies like Fruit of the Loom have stepped up to ensure their factories pay the proper minimum wage, VF has refused to do anything to end massive wage theft in Haiti.
- VF contracts with several factories in Cambodia where at the end of 2013, hundreds of thousands of Cambodian garment workers bravely went on strike to demand a minimum wage of $160 per month. The Cambodian government responded with violence and repression, killing four workers and jailing 23 strike leaders. This violent response could have been prevented had VF worked with other brands to ensure that their contractors met strikers demands for a livable wage of $160 per month. To date, VF has not agreed to sign an agreement with Cambodian worker representatives ensuring that its suppliers pay workers $160 per month, despite calls from unions and the Worker Rights Consortium to do so.
On April 2, 2014, over 48,000 workers walked off the job at the Yue Yuen factory, a supplier for Timberland (a VF brand), in China’s largest strike in recent memory. The Yue Yuen workers had been robbed of years of legally-owed social insurance payments and it was only after a massive strike in which several workers were beaten and kidnapped that the factory agreed to begin paying full social insurance and higher wages.
Students and Workers Are Fighting Back
- Students have successfully pressured 27 universities – American, Arizona State, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Emerson, George Washington, Georgetown, Grand Valley State, Macalester College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern, NYU, Oberlin, Penn State, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple University, University of Edinburgh, University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Michigan, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Pennsylvania, University of Washington-Seattle, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Washington State University – to formally require their apparel brands to sign the Accord as a condition of producing university apparel. In response to this growing university action, over 16 college-logo apparel producers, including Fruit of the Loom, Adidas, Knights Apparel, Top of the World, Zephyr Headwear, New Agenda, and Cutter & Buck – have signed the Accord since students’ “End Deathtraps” campaign began in September.
- Despite calls from unions in Bangladesh, dozens of universities, students across the country, community leaders, legislators, and others, VF still refuses to sign the Accord.
Start a campaign on your campus to End Deathtraps
Step 1: Get involved with your USAS local!
Step 2: Deliver a letter to your university Chancellor or President
In order to get your university to take action on this issue, it is necessary to inform your university’s president or chancellor of the current safety crisis in Bangladesh and how your your university has a stake in making sure that its apparel is being produced in conditions in which workers don’t have to fear for their lives while at work. This can be done by requiring all licensees (companies who have the rights to produce your university apparel) sign onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Unless they agree to take this vital step, the brand should no longer retain the privilege of producing for your university, as it sends the message that your university doesn’t care about the workers who produce your apparel. Consequently, companies who refuse to sign onto the Accord should have their business with the university terminated.
Step 3: Take action!
Now that you have laid out your asks in a letter to your president, it’s time to follow up with fun and creative actions to help sway your university president to take action. Some ways that we are doing this is through:
Creative letter deliveries
Hosting Worker Tour events with speakers from Bangladesh
Don’t have a USAS local at your school? Get in touch to start one up!
Check out our organizing guide to find out how you can start up a group at your school and join in the fight to End Deathtraps today!