Have you ever thought about where the clothing in The Barnard Store is made?
On October 23, the Barnard Student Government Association released a statement “recogniz[ing] and support[ing] Student-Worker Solidarity’s efforts to encourage Barnard to affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium,” an independent labor-rights-monitoring organization focused on where collegiate apparel is produced.
As an organizer with Student-Worker Solidarity, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with dozens of students and key administrators about our campaign. Amid a number of important initiatives and actions taking place on and off campus, advocating for Barnard to affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium may be viewed by some as a lower priority.
However, if Barnard is to be a global leader in promoting women’s rights, we must practice these values in tangible ways, not just preach them. If this school is “unequivocally dedicated to the success of women,” it is insufficient to just provide an elite education to a privileged handful. Affiliating with WRC is one powerful way in which Barnard, as an institution, can leverage its wealth and power in solidarity with garment workers (the majority of whom are women) around the world in their fight for dignity and respect.
In the last few years, there have been dozens of documented cases of factory fires, withheld wages, sexual harassment, and violence toward workers in factories producing the apparel sold in stores on campuses around the country. By affiliating with WRC, students can finally have knowledge about where and under what conditions Barnard’s apparel is being made and the resources necessary to hold them to a higher standard.
WRC has been crucial to remediating cases of sexual harassment, wage theft, discrimination, and unsafe factory conditions, among other outrageous labor violations that are often found in garment factories where collegiate apparel is produced. After many years of student-led campaigns, the entire Ivy League, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Spelman, and more than 180 other colleges and universities are now affiliated with WRC.
Some students and administrators may ask why Barnard can’t just create its own list of ethical apparel suppliers and “switch” to different brands. Not only would this create an enormous workload for a currently nonexistent body of students and administrators, but it also risks being ineffective without the research and on-the-ground work of an organization like WRC. When schools affiliate with WRC, the factories that produce their apparel are listed in a database so we can be alerted in cases of abuse and work toward correcting the problem. WRC conducts investigations of factories and has field representatives that speak the local language(s) in garment-producing countries, many with existing working relationships with a multitude of workers.
Affiliate schools are required to adopt a manufacturing code of conduct and work toward its incorporation with vendors or licensees, ask vendors or licensees to provide WRC with a list of names and locations of all factories involved in the production of their logo goods, and pay a small affiliation fee. In return, the Worker Rights Consortium provides assessments of the factories, giving schools the power to, alongside peer institutions in WRC, address problems and improve conditions, and much more. Most importantly, WRC is a crucial resource for the garment workers who create collegiate apparel if they need to report stolen wages, harassment, dangerous working conditions, violent anti-union retaliation, or other labor violations.
Columbia has been affiliated with WRC since 2000. Students for Environmental and Economic Justice, the first Barnard and Columbia branch of United Students Against Sweatshops (prior to Student-Worker Solidarity), led a campaign that made Columbia the second school to affiliate with WRC.
Student-led campaigns have helped Barnard play a more positive role on a global scale. For example, the Board of Trustees voted to divest from climate deniers last year after the Divest Barnard campaign. If we can influence the suppliers of Barnard’s apparel, we can continue to make a real impact on people’s lives.
Barnard has the opportunity to set a “bold standard” by joining the growing number of colleges and universities affiliated with WRC. As garment workers around the world fight for their rights, students around the United States have consistently stood in solidarity and helped win critical victories. It’s time for Barnard students to join them.
Meghan is a sophomore at Barnard College studying history and sociology. She organizes with Student-Worker Solidarity and hopes that her writing inspires critical thinking and collective action. Left Turn runs alternate Tuesdays.
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