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Rutgers Anti-Sweatshop Activists Pressure University Leaders on Worker Safety

Students March on Old Queens, Demanding University Require Companies It Does Business With Sign Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord
USAS Protest
Student activists demand to speak to President Barchi outside Old Queens, the building that houses his office, Friday morning. Kaila Boulware

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Rutgers University's main administration building, home to President Bob Barchi's office, was locked down Friday morning as activists marched on it  and demanded a meeting with Barchi.

Rutgers United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) led the march down College Avenue, from the Brower Commons Dining Hall towards the Old Queens building to confront Barchi.

USAS has been pressuring Barchi since December to amend the university code of conduct, making it so that corporations they do business with must sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.

The Bangladesh Accord was designed to ensure that corporations do not force their workers to work in unsafe conditions.

The movement around the accord has grown since April 2013, when the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,100 workers.

On Monday night, more than 130 people attended a workshop hosted by USAS featuring a survivor of the Rana Plaza collapse Reba Sikder, alongside worker rights activist Kalpona Akter.

USAS invited President Barchi to the event and reserved him a seat in the front row, hoping that if he heard the conditions of workers firsthand, he would work harder to amend the Code of Conduct.

Barchi never showed up to the event, sparking the USAS march on Old Queens to confront his administration directly.

When the marchers arrived, immediately the chants picked up, and students marched around to the other side of the building where security kept them out of the building.

“The building is on lockdown,” a guard replied when the activists asked to speak with Barchi.

After being told Barchi was not present, USAS members requested to speak with a representative of his administration, and refused to leave until someone addressed their concerns.

Eventually Barchi's Chief of Staff Greg Jackson addressed the students, and said that in order to have the issue recognized, it must first pass through University Senate.

USAS members explained they are already in the process of passing a bill through the Rutgers student government, which will eventually move on to the Senate. However, the process is slow and they want the issue to be addressed sooner.

Jackson assured the group that Barchi cares about their issue, and that if it passes through the University Senate, he will make sure it is resolved and the code amended.

“Cool, but if it doesn’t, we’ll be back,” replied Ben Katz, a Rutgers junior.

Their efforts are part of the national USAS campaign to pressure brand name clothing companies to sign on to the Bangladesh Accord.

“As students, we can pressure companies to [sign the Accord] by having our universities threaten to cut contracts with ones that do not sign on,” said Sam Son, a Rutgers freshman.

So far students at schools such as Duke, Cornell, U-Penn, NYU, and Penn State have had success in getting their administrations to require vendors sign the accord.

In his first semester in charge last fall, Barchi gave into a USAS demand when he agreed to end the school's relationship with Adidas.

Editor's Note: The author of this article was a participant in the march.