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    In January 2014, a new student RSO (recognized student organization) was about to hit the University of Louisville, Cards United Against Sweatshops (CUAS).  It was formed by UofL student, James El-Mallakh, who acted as its president and founder through the summer of 2014. The current CUAS president is UofL senior, Rebecca Peek.

    I sat down with El-Mallakh and spoke to him about the group. El-Mallakh explained that he was inspired to form this organization after he went on a retreat to the Dominican Republic that taught students how to become “stronger activists on campus,” especially in regards to sweatshop labor. At the retreat, they met former sweatshop workers who “persevered, unionized, and created one of the best garment factories on the planet, Alta Gracia.” Alta Gracia is located where the former sweatshop (owned by BJ&B) was and is now owned by Knights Apparel. The workers are now paid three times the minimum wage of the country, and they receive benefits such as healthcare and paid sick days.

    El-Mallakh said that the main take away from this retreat was learning “how to hold your school accountable for sweatshop labor and ending sweatshop clothing [produced and sold] on campus."

    Upon returning from this trip, El-Mallakh formed Cards United Against Sweatshops (CUAS), and they are part of a national organization, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). The campaign that USAS is currently leading is against the VF Corporation who owns several clothing brands including Lee, JanSports, and Northface. Many of these companies source their clothing from sweatshops in Bangladesh, where workers are underpaid and work in poor, unsafe conditions.

    In 2013, the Rana Plaza, a sweatshop in Bangladesh, collapsed and killed 1,129 workers with hundreds injured and some even missing. It was said that the collapse was due to subpar infrastructure. Despite visible cracks, workers were forced to come in the morning of the collapse, causing many lives to be lost. After this incident, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was created in May 2013. This is an agreement between global brands, retailers, and the workers ensuring the maintenance of safe working environments and worker rights. However, the VF Corporation and its clothing lines had refused to sign this Accord.

    As a result, many university student organizations across the United States, including the Cards United Against Sweatshops are pushing their colleges to cut contracts with JanSports in an effort to pressure VF Corporation to sign the Accord.


    As of now, about 20 U.S. colleges have cut their contracts, but UofL is not one of them. El-Mallakh states that they felt as if President Ramsey of UofL ignored the cries of their group until they “danced into President Ramsey’s office in 80s clothing;” that was the first time he agreed to meet with them.

    After the dance-in, CUAS went on to hold a few peaceful protests on campus, and eventually, a 90+ hour sit-in at the Rotunda at Grawemeyer Hall, where President Ramsey’s office is located. During this time, CUAS gained much publicity as media crews continually came in to capture footage of the protest. It was also at this time that the group drew a spike in student support, acknowledgement, and awareness.

    As a result of these protests and increased awareness, inside as well as outside of UofL, a committee was formed consisting of UofL administrators, SGA (Student Government Association) representatives, representatives from the law school, representatives from the athletic department, and representatives from the licensing involved. Kate Hall, the media correspondent of CUAS, stated that they did not want to be a part of this committee because they felt that this only served as a “stalling tactic in the hopes that the cause would lose its momentum.”



    El-Mallakh stated that the campaign has allowed students to “feel energized to hold their university accountable,” and it has “given students a sense of ownership and participation over their campus.” A seemingly unanimous feeling among many of the student supporters is that “the administration doesn’t listen to the students and takes advantage of the students.” As El-Mallakh explained, “This is a noncontroversial issue with hundreds of students in support so far. However, the administration has drawn it out, meaning that they weren’t and aren’t listening to the students.”

    Finally, as of Thursday, May 7, UofL has announced that they have severed their ties with JanSports and will not be renewing their contract with them in June. On behalf of CUAS, Hall stated that they are "elated that after eight months of campaigning and hard work from the group" that UofL has made this decision. They are "proud of UofL," and now, they are waiting for the university to release a "statement detailing the reason for the non-renewal."

    Though UofL has not yet taken steps towards making this announcement, UofL is aware that this is a vital part of CUAS' campaign. Hall emphasized how important it is for the public as well as VF Corporation to know that the cut was due to VF Corporation's refusal to sign the accord. This will contribute to the “national campaign to put pressure on VF Corporation to sign the Accord” so that workers of these sweatshops in Bangladesh will have the safety and rights that they deserve.

    For more information on CUAS, follow their Twitter and Facebook accounts.

    For more information on the United Students Against Sweatshops, follow their site.


    Photo Courtesy of Cards United Against Sweatshops Facebook Page, Rebecca Peek's Facebook Page, and James El-Mallakh's Facebook Page

    Irena Tran's picture

    About Irena Tran

    I studied Art at UofL and now physical therapy at Bellarmine University. I love art, sports, and good food. I'm always looking for something new to try and new concepts to photograph!

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