After several years on hiatus, United Students Against Sweatshops has returned to Duke with a new mission.
USAS has had two meetings thus far, during which they have discussed participating in a national USAS campaign to improve working conditions in Bangladesh in the wake of a major factory collapse there this spring. In 2006, Duke’s USAS chapter successfully advocated for several University decisions to improve working conditions of Duke apparel manufacturers, but the group petered out when student leaders graduated.
“This year we’re focusing on the Bangladesh campaign because it’s the top priority of USAS, nationally-speaking,” said Zoe Willingham, a freshman who co-organizes the group. “We’re hoping that next year we can focus on campus workers’ rights and on the state and local level as well.”
Both Willingham and fellow organizer Zaynah Alam, a sophomore, were already passionate about the issue of workers’ rights, particularly in Bangladesh. The issue became particularly pronounced with the April 24 factory collapse in Savar, Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 people and injured approximately 2,500. The factory collapsed because it had unsafe policies, Alam noted.
“I have family in Bangladesh—so this is relevant to me on a personal level. I kind of know firsthand what the conditions are there,” said Alam, who has written for The Chronicle.
The event catalyzed extensive investigation into factories—under American and European ownership—and their conditions in Bangladesh. It was discovered that 90 percent of factories in Bangladesh have structural problems, Alam said.
Willingham, too, relates personally to the issue of workers’ rights on a broader scale.
“I am interested in worker’s rights because my father’s union made a huge difference in my life,” she said. “He had a terrible accident on the job and we would be in terrible debt if it weren’t for workman’s comp—I wouldn’t be at Duke.”
Willingham and Alam decided to revive the group after meeting with Naomi Carbrey, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and regional USAS organizer. She asked if they would be interested in restarting the group at Duke.
“It felt like the beginning of an action movie: ‘your quest, if you choose to accept it’... it was that kind of thing,” Willingham said.
USAS was prominent on campus in 2006, when the group lobbied successfully for Duke to be one of the first universities to adopt the Designated Supplier Program—a program to ensure that all items bearing the Duke logo are produced in sweatshop-free conditions. The club died out when the student leadership graduated.
“I don’t know anyone who was in involved in 2006—because they’ve all graduated,” Alam said. “But they were actually a really big deal and they were very involved. We’re definitely going to use their success as a jump-off point.”
USAS also encouraged Duke to lead its peers in purchasing apparel made by fair trade clothing line Alta Gracia. Alta Gracia has exemplary factories in the Dominican Republic, where employees have benefits, good hours and are paid three times the minimum wage, Willingham said. Duke began selling Alta Gracia merchandise in 2010.
“Alta Gracia is a fantastic brand and USAS was in the frontlines of that battle to get schools to adopt that clothing line as opposed to, say, Nike Duke apparel,” Willingham said.
Even with Alta Gracia being sold in the bookstore, Duke still sells a significant amount of Nike apparel. Nike notoriously has factories with sweatshop conditions, said Jasmine Judge, a freshman member of the club.
“A goal of the club would be to talk to President [Richard] Brodhead and ask him to give Nike an ultimatum—to tell Nike that they should fix these conditions or they will lose Duke as a buyer. They don’t want to lose a multimillion dollar contract,” Judge said.
Judge said that she believes that with the power of an institution like Duke, in coalition with other universities who are also applying pressure, the fight to get Nike to improve worker’s conditions is a realistic issue for the club to tackle.
“People get here and they want to make a difference and travel abroad and change lives and everything,” Judge said. “But this is a way to do that without even leaving Duke.”