The human toll of sweatshop abuse has proved severe in recent months. The Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh in late November claimed the lives of 112 workers, and two months prior, a factory fire at Ali Enterprises in Pakistan killed 289 workers, laboring overtime to meet deadlines for the holiday shopping season. Ali Enterprises’ death toll doubled that of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. Since 2006, more than 600 Bangladeshi garment workers have burned alive in factory fires while sewing clothes for companies like Gap, H&M, and Walmart.

After the Tazreen fire, members of the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation, an affiliate of United Students Against Sweatshops at the University of Southern California, held a vigil commemorating the workers who perished in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Students lit candles, read worker testimonies, and called on their university to take action against sweatshops by affiliating with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent organization that monitors factories producing university apparel. The students’ appeal responded to recent revelations that one of USC’s four apparel monitors failed to address the fire safety hazards that led to the blazes at both Ali Enterprises and Tazreen, and the death of the hundreds of garment workers trapped inside.

When Sweatshops Became Deathtraps

The problems underlying the proliferation of factory fires in the garment industry are twofold. First, fire safety costs money, and most brands are unwilling to foot the bill. The WRC estimates that it would cost companies like Walmart less than 10 cents per garment to make their contract factories in Bangladesh safe. Yet, in a 2011 meeting of retailers in Bangladesh, Walmart opposed safety improvement proposals, suggesting that because “corrections on electrical and fire safety” would require “extensive and costly modifications…it is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.”

Second, corporate-funded apparel monitors have failed at their stated mission to protect workers. For instance, just over two months prior to the factory fire in Bangladesh, multiple investigations were conducted at Ali Enterprises in Pakistan by corporate-funded monitors. One of those monitors, acting on behalf of Social Accountability International, awarded Ali Enterprises with SA-8000 certification, giving the factory a clean bill of health just weeks before 289 workers were unable to escape because doors were locked, windows were barred with iron grills, and fire exits were nonexistent.

USC’s Links to Corporate Monitors

USC contracts with four corporate apparel monitors for the production of its apparel. One of these monitors, UL Responsible Sourcing, was tasked by KiK, a German brand, to make sure Ali Enterprises in Pakistan was protecting worker safety. Despite conducting three audits of Ali Enterprises, UL Responsible Sourcing failed to detect and fix fire safety hazards at Ali Enterprises, resulting in the death of almost one-fifth of the factory workforce.

UL Responsible Sourcing also inspected the Trazeen factory prior to the fire on behalf of Walmart, however this was discovered only recently after a cover sheet from the monitor was found inside the factory. UL Responsible Sourcing refuses to release the contents of its audits despite calls from labor groups to do so. Worse of all, even if UL Responsible Sourcing found fire safety violations in the factories, built-in confidentiality clauses prevent its audits from being made public — meaning that workers can go for months in factories that are vertiable death traps without even knowing it.

Accordia Global Compliance Group, another USC-approved monitor, is responsible for a large number of Walmart’s supply chain audits. According to Walmart, Accordia found no problems at CJ’s Seafood – the Walmart crawfish packer in Louisiana that was fined, shortly thereafter, a quarter of a million by the US government for numerous labor rights violations. Five of the Tazreen factory’s 14 production lines were dedicated to Walmart apparel before the fire decimated the premises. However, because of the lack of transparency within the shadowy world of corporate monitoring, we don't know if Accordia also conducted an audit of the Trazeen factory.

USC’s apparel program is one of the largest in the world, and, like other universities, USC has multimillion-dollar contracts that it can leverage to force brands to be accountable to their workers. However, when USC contracts with corporate monitors like UL Responsible Sourcing, it props up a broken model that has cost the lives of hundreds of workers.

The Potential of Independent Monitoring and Brand Accountability

But there is an alternative. Over the last two years, the WRC has joined with USAS and the International Labor Rights Forum to press brands to sign comprehensive fire safety agreements, requiring worker and union input, transparency, fair prices to factories, and legally binding commitments to protect workers. PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger, and Tchibo, a German retailer, have already agreed to sign on to this life-saving fire safety program, while other brands like Gap and Walmart have refused any legally-binding commitments to workers.

Beyond this initiative, the WRC’s investigations have led to groundbreaking victories for workers rights. In 2009, Russell Athletic agreed to re-open a shuttered union factory and implement union neutrality throughout its plants in Honduras following a WRC investigation and a campaign led by USAS. Most recently, four universities have committed to end contracts with Adidas following the WRC’s finding that Adidas refused to pay $1.8 million in legally owed severance to its 2,800 former PT Kizone workers in Indonesia.

Ongoing Struggle at USC

Just this summer, the University of Texas—the largest university apparel licensor in the world—joined the ranks of the 180 universities who have affiliated with the WRC. Students at USC have fought for over a decade to persuade their university to align with the independent monitor, but to date, USC has refused.

In response to the Pakistan factory fire, Matt Curran, USC director of trademark licensing and social responsibility, noted that UL Responsible Sourcing did a one-day compliance assessment of the factory for KiK and that the assessment took place nine months before the fire occured and was the only time UL Responsible Sourcing audited the factory. Curran also pointed out that “the factory does not produce any USC products.” However, a representative of KiK, the brand that contracted UL Responsible Sourcing at Ali Enterprises, subsequently stateed in an email that there were actually three independent audits done. And in any case, the fact remains that UL Responsible Sourcing was hired to monitor both Ali Enterprises and Tarzeen, and it failed to prevent 401 workers from burning to death. By supporting corporate-funded monitors like UL Responsible Sourcing, USC is perpetuating a system that threatens the lives of workers everywhere, including workers in factories producing USC apparel.