UWTSD: “Our Vision… Our Values…” Our Bullsh*t. On Campaigning in a Pandemic and Other Challenges

By: Iona Mokandpuri

The Sweatshop Free campaign is a movement of people uniting for better workers’ rights for those who work in sweatshops. The campaign, led by students in the People & Planet network, brings together students with those who work in the factories that manufacture the very electronics used in universities by students.

This past academic year saw the UWTSD Sweatshop Free campaign reach Lampeter and gain momentum through the year, spreading awareness of the violation of workers’ rights in the electronics supply chain. Starting with a good ol’ workshop about the campaign and campaign strategies, we went on to hold a documentary night, screening the documentary Complicit, and have a petition that has steadily been gaining support in calling for UWTSD to affiliate to Electronics Watch (a worker-driven organisation that supports and monitors worker rights).

Like with anything, there have been challenges; generally, this took the form of university management evading contact and avoiding acknowledgement of the campaign, despite lobbying from the students and the SU. Then, of course, there was COVID-19 and the swathe of effects that it brought with it. Lockdown and the closing of the university certainly provided a new challenge for campaigning, but we adapted. The campaigning moved to being completely online. First, with a mass email campaign to management: an ‘inbox occupation’ if you will, which highlighted how the need for workers’ rights had been made more important and relevant in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Do you think all those electronic factories furloughed their workers? And they didn’t receive the PPE they needed to work safely before the pandemic, let alone now.

Despite this, a response from the University management remained elusive, with little to no acknowledgment of the campaign or its demands, displaying an overt disregard for workers rights, and to students of UWTSD. Naturally, this meant an escalation in campaigning, which brings us to present events.

Moving forward, an open letter has been written and will be published and shared to publicly call that UWTSD affiliate to Electronics Watch. Electronics Watch is the only monitoring organisation that is credible with workers and their unions, so affiliation is an important step towards securing better working conditions. Notably, to affiliate to Electronics Watch would cost UWTSD roughly £5,000 annually. To put this into perspective, WalesOnline reported our Vice-chancellor, Prof. Medwin Hughes, as receiving a salary and benefits package worth around £240,000 in 2019.

On a larger scale, a vision for the future is for all universities to take responsibility for their supply chains, supporting the workers who make the technology these institutions rely on. Almost half of UK universities have affiliated to Electronics Watch, but unfortunately UWTSD lags behind in making progress towards a fairer and more ethical world. This is something that UWTSD People & Planet will continue to challenge.

Embarrassingly, last year saw UWTSD slip from First Class university to a 2:1 Class in the People & Planet University League – UWTSD scores a pitiful 10% out of 100% in the Workers Rights category. Affiliating to Electronics Watch would improve this drastically, UWTSD have the chance to show that they value their students’ voices and the lives of workers who make the equipment we have become so reliant on, and to demonstrate the values their website claims: “Inclusivity,” “Sustainable development,” and “The concept of global citizenship.” To date however, UWTSD have shown that these are nothing but empty words.