Congratulations to St. Louis County for joining the SweatFree Initiative!

On March 12, 2013 the St. Louis County Council passed a Sweatshop-Free Purchasing Ordinance.  The Ordinance sets forth standards for vendors to ensure that the county’s uniforms are not being made under sweatshop practices.

In just under three years, St. Louis County, University City and the City of St. Louis have become SweatFree Communities.  University City and the City of St. Louis have enacted Sweatshop-Free Resolutions similar to that of the County’s Ordinance.  We are now reaching out and organizing with other municipalities to adopt their own Sweatfree Resolution or Ordinance in hopes that they will become SweatFree Communities as well.

As our work is continuing, I think about how significant this is for the United States right now.  We are at a moment where we can really make a shift, either towards just labor practices and more domestic job opportunities through putting an end to sweatshops or towards exploitation and cheap labor through free trade agreements and offshore manufacturing.  I have found myself checking the news articles that have been posted regarding the County’s passing of the Sweatfree Ordinance to see if there is any positive feedback or just any St. Louis citizen who also feels how critical this movement is.  But, alas, this has yet to happen.  Unfortunately, the one comment I have found states that a Sweatshop-free Ordinance is a stupid law proposal.  I feel the need now to relay why SweatFree Communities are not in fact stupid, but absolutely necessary if we ever want to change the norm of cheap products and human rights abuses.

Just over a century ago in 1911 the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City burned to the ground killing 146 people.  After this occurred, there was a call for support for stronger worker protection from workplace health and safety to workers’ rights to organize.  But, 100 years later on November 25, 2012 the Tazreen Fashion garment factory in Bangladesh suffered from a devastating fire that killed over 100 people and injured many more.  It appears that workers safety and health has not improved as the amount of deaths at the Tazreen Factory was due to the lack of fire escapes and inadequate safety precautions.  This has severely affected families and communities who lost their loved ones, and it will continue to occur as Bangladesh is the second-largest garment manufacturer in the world with hundreds of other factories with safety hazards like that of the Tazreen.

Many large US retailers were receiving their garments from the Tazreen factory, including Wal Mart, Sears and Sean PDiddy Combs’ line, who stated that they didn’t know their clothes were being made in conditions like this.

Other retailers such as H&M, Forever 21, Macy’s and Guess? have been tied to sweatshops similar to the Tazreen factory.  Whether they actually know about the conditions inside these factories is uncertain.  What is certain is that companies like these retailers look for places with the lowest prices to purchase their garments, and these factories are able to have such low prices because they pay their workers less and they are usually in areas with little to no human rights protections.  And these companies are able to get away with this because the US Labor Department only requires internal monitoring.

But, it is not enough to push for US made products for not too long ago sweatshops were exposed in Los Angeles and New York as well.  In fact, some studies have shown that over 60% of factories in LA and New York are sweatshops (  Whether these sweatshops are in the United States or outside, large US retailers are directly supporting these horrible labor practices by purchasing their products from them.

So, there’s the reality of the manufacturing world.  Factories can’t compete unless they offer the cheapest of the cheap when it comes to products, and guess what the first thing is to go to lower costs?  Workers’ protection, whether those protections include safety precautions or things like a living wage, production comes first.   This is the norm, and it needs to change, and to do that we need to start with local governments and urge them to join the SweatFree Community Initiative.

Government is a force, a force they can use responsibly by promoting fair treatment and protection of our workers.  If they chose to become a SweatFree Community, they will assist sweatshop workers globally in their struggles to improve working conditions and form strong, independent unions.

By becoming a SweatFree Community, local municipalities will sign onto a SweatFree Resolution or Ordinance that will call for them to look into their buying policies for its uniforms.   The Comprehensive Sweatshop Free Program set by this Resolution or Ordinance requires vendors to report where they receive their uniforms from and what the workplace conditions, labor practices and production processes are like.  The SweatFree Resolution or Ordinance pursues policies that follow a ‘sweat-free’ standard. Practices that do not meet the standards of being “sweat-free” include: defying minimum wage and overtime laws of the state, supporting child labor, giving industrial homework, safety and health hazards and abusing worker’s compensation laws.  Nine states, 43 cities, 15 counties and 118 school districts have sweat-free procurement policies and resolutions adopted in the U.S.

The overall goal is goal is to change the rules of competition to favor not businesses that produce the cheapest possible goods at the expense of workers, but those that offer good value while operating transparently, providing humane working conditions, and valuing workers’ human and labor rights.  I believe that if large forces such as our government enforce these sweat-free practices it will start the trend for all textile manufacturers to use responsibility when creating jobs, promoting decent working conditions, leveling the playing field, and improving transparency and accountability.  It is not to close down factories, but make it possible for them to operate under fair practices.

After all of that rambling, hopefully you can see why this movement is important to me, even if you do not agree with it.  But, if you would like to promote fair and just practices, reach out to your local governments and tell them you want to become a Sweatfree Community J

Contributed by Kara Sheehan


Chavez’s Legacy: Pt 2

Hugo Chávez Frías died at age 58 on March 5.  He was the dominant personality in Latin American politics over the past fifteen years. First, with the failed coup of 1992, which raised questions about the compatibility of neoliberal, free market economic policies with democracy; then, with his landslide election to the Venezuelan presidency in December 1998, he put himself at the leading edge of what has been called the “Pink Wave” – the rise of leftists to power after years in the wilderness.   

Chávez has to share some of that “glory” with Brazil’s Lula, and his career was a reflection, not just a cause, of Latin America’s left turn.  Still, he helped pull Latin America farther left than Lula could possibly have done alone and, backed by oil export power, he took initiatives that are unlikely to disappear simply because of his passing.

His most significant accomplishments at home are several. His leadership was indispensable to accomplishing the reincorporation of the masses of Venezuelans into politics and reducing poverty. He recovered national sovereignty over the subsoil wealth, the oil. 

Internationally, Chávez was the architect of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an economic integration scheme that really is an alternative to the laissez faire, neoliberal model promoted by the US. He championed the emergence of several new security and economic cooperation organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean.  On the international stage, he provided the crucial leadership to revitalize OPEC, while at the same time he provided an energy lifeline to many countries — and to some poor communities in the United States – with discounts on Venezuelan oil.

While he accomplished a significant redistribution of the oil wealth, significantly lowered poverty rates, and introduced new participatory institutions into Venezuela, he at times polarized the country with Manichean rhetoric and amassed more power in his own hands than is healthy for democracy.  High rates of violence, a dysfunctional justice system, and corruption remain significant problems. His absence will now test the viability of the new participatory institutions that function well in some parts of the country, but struggle in others.

What is next? His chosen successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, should win the snap election (within 30 days) easily. The greater challenge facing the Bolivarian Revolution is consolidating the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). That party must now develop the institutional capability to choose candidates and leaders, formulate programs, and resolve internal conflicts without the personal (and personalist) authority of the populist caudillo. This can happen – the experience of Peronism in Argentina is proof.

Another big challenge will be oil policy.  Will oil minister Rafael Ramirez, strongly committed to OPEC and national control over the industry, keep his job?  Can the country cut its spiraling domestic consumption?  Can an extractive industry operate compatibly with those progressive provisions in the Bolivarian Constitution that enhance the rights of indigenous people?

Chávez steadfastly and effectively defended Venezuela’s right to have economic and political relations with other nations on its own terms.  In some instances, he went beyond exercising that sovereign right to more a questionable embrace of leaders whose record on political pluralism, rights, economic inclusion and democracy contradict the Bolivarian ideals that he espoused. 

The Chávez legacy is likely to be debated as long as the history of the Venezuelan nation is written.

Chavez’s political opposition faces challenges of its own. Chavez was a point of unity not just for the left in Venezuela, but for the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). The MUD probably will unite around the candidacy of Henrique Capriles again, but should he lose, any number of ambitious politicians will try to move to the front of the coalition.

Capriles has been deft in commenting on Chávez’s illness and more recently on his death. He expressed condolences and carefully avoided offending the sensibilities of the admirers of Chávez.  However, in the eastern, affluent suburbs, noisy celebrations marked the announcement of Chávez’s passing.  Such ostentatious insensitivity to the feelings of the majority only make it harder for Capriles to convince less committed Chávez voters, whom he needs to attract, that the MUD can be trusted not to dismantle the policies from which they benefit.

Chávez’s legacy in Venezuela is likely to be debated as long as historians try to write about his life and times. Whenever Venezuelans are asked, “What do you think of Chávez? “the answer will tell you something about their political views. For now, he has left behind his earthly pursuits and stepped into the realm of mythology.


Contributed by Daniel Hellinger, a professor of Political Science and International Relations at Webster University. Daniel Hellinger is a Fulbright Scholar who holds a Ph. D. in political science from Rutgers University. He has been quoted in such media as The New York Times,the Financial Times, the Associated Press and the Christian Science Monitor. Hellinger is president of the advisory board for the Center for Democracy in America, an organization that promotes understanding between U.S. and Venezuelan decision makers. This article was previously published on the Caracas Connect, a website of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

Chavez’s Legacy: Pt 1

Mixed emotions were expressed when it was announced that President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela died on Tuesday, March 5th. Chávez, known for his bombastic rhetoric against the United States, established himself as the leading figure of the Latin American Left.  He was elected on the promise of the ‘third way,’ a blend between socialism and capitalism, and he brought many changes to Venezuela during his fourteen years of power.  With his death, Chávez is leaving behind a mixed legacy that deserves to be examined before predictions are made about the outcome of the special presidential election that must be held within the next 30 days according to Venezuelan law.

Optimism surrounded Chávez’s first election in 1998. The Venezuelan public rallied around the charismatic leader’s platform of improving the quality of life in a country known for political corruption, high crime rates, and immense wealth disparity. Upon taking office, Chávez held a referendum on changing the Venezuelan constitution adding in necessary human rights protections. Such provisions garnered overwhelming support from the public that wanted a fresh start for democracy. The people then voted in favor of the constitution, confirming Chávez’s widespread popular support and unsurprisingly, reelected him to another six-year term in 2000.

Not everyone was enchanted with Chávez’s government’s policies, however. He faced a military coup in 2002, similar to the one he staged against then President Carlos Andrés Pérez as an army Lt. Col. in 1992. That same year, Chávez also faced a large strike from the country’s state-run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA). The repercussions against the dissenters in both cases were swift and harsh that drew a distinct line between his loyal supporters (Chavistas) and the opposition. This was just a hint of things to come. Over time the Venezuelan government continued to violate its own human rights protections and prosecuted those who criticized Chávez and his agenda.

To solidify his power over the opposition, he and his allies in the National Assembly added seats to the Supreme Court and filled them with loyal Chavistas. This court made its support of the government’s agenda its top priority, regularly ruling in favor of the government and against the opposition, dissenters, and non-governmental organizations, including human rights organizations. In the 2005 elections, Chavista loyalists won all of the seats in the National Assembly because the opposition boycotted the elections alleging corruption and fraud. A year later, Hugo Chávez was re-elected to the presidency with a solid majority (63%) of the vote. While the elections were democratic, concerns about fraud and suppression of opposition were well documented.

With his allies in firm control of the legislature, Chávez received powers to legislate by decree for 18 months. During this time period, he began a wide sweeping plan to create a socialist state. He nationalized Venezuela’s largest private electric company and curtailed free speech by signing an agreement for a state take-over of Venezuela’s largest telecommunications company. He also refused to renew the broadcasting license of Radio Caracas Television—the country’s oldest private media network after the media outlet had aired a video of Chávez’s energy minister advising his employees at PDVSA to quit their jobs if they did not support the government. At the end of 2007, the Venezuelan people voted against Chávez-proposed amendments to the constitution, but that did not stop his populist agenda. To the dismay of the local and global business communities he announced the nationalization of the state’s cement industry and the country’s largest steel producer.

The Chávez government continued its ambitious agenda by proposing a referendum that would abolish term limits in 2009. The referendum passed, after which Chávez declared he would rule for at least another decade. News about Chávez’s health problems was made public in 2011 amidst the expansion of his populist agenda. Many people and media outlets were distracted by his health concerns instead of evaluating the efficacy of the policies enacted by the government. Meanwhile, human rights activists, indigenous communities, and the press received a crushing blow when Venezuela withdrew from the American Convention on Human Rights in September of 2012. While battling cancer, Hugo Chávez sought re-election in October of 2012 and was able to defeat a younger and charismatic Henrique Capriles. The presidential elections were again tainted by allegations of fraud brought against Chávez and his supporters.

Over the course of his presidency, Chávez was revered by many of the poor whose lives he improved and disdained by the elite, the business community, journalists, and human rights defenders. Using profits from oil production to fund social programs, Chávez’s administration was able to bring many people out of poverty and procure a more equal distribution of income. According to the CIA Factbook, the Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, had dropped in Venezuela from nearly .5 in 1998 to .39 in 2011, rivaling only Canada for a more equal distribution of income in the Western Hemisphere. However, the nationalization of oil fields has made the economy more dependent on oil revenue and has made production less efficient with production levels dropping over the past five years. Impending nationalization also threatens direct investment from other foreign countries and corporations.

However, any voice of dissent has been curbed by the ever-decreasing freedom of speech under Chávez. Under his rule, the government has expanded state media coverage from one outlet to six and has significantly marginalized the private media. Outspoken critics were subject to human rights abuses and often jailed. Most famously, Chávez jailed government critic Judge María Lourdes Afiuni in 2009 after her conditional release was granted in accordance with Venezuelan law and was supported by a recommendation from United Nations human rights monitors. Judge Afiuni is still under house arrest at this writing. Chávez also restricted the involvement of the international human rights community within Venezuela when the Supreme Court declared that organizations receiving foreign funding could be tried for treason. The National Assembly also passed legislation that would prohibit organizations that “defend political rights” or “monitor the performance of public bodies” from receiving international funding—their primary, and sometimes only, source of funds. This has made the government less transparent and jeopardizes at-risk portions of society.

In relation to the upcoming election, Hugo Chávez did handpick a successor, Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro. The opposition candidate from this past October’s presidential election, Henrique Capriles, is Maduro’s likely opponent. Loyalty to the Chavista movement and the “sympathy” vote have been cited by some analysts as potential factors that could affect the outcome of the upcoming special election. While these are important considerations, the most important factors that the Venezuelan people will weigh at the polls are their personal experiences under the Chávez government and their current quality of life.


Contributed by Max Ivan Rava, an affiliate of the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America, Latin Americanist, and policy analyst.

Playing Checkers in the Desert: A Reflection on Immigration, Life and Values

She pursed her lip; I squinted my eyes. She scratched her head as my heart raced; then she saw it.  It was a double jump in checkers and in one swift move Tonya took both of my kings and I was doomed. We laughed as if we were old friends and she had bested me for the one-hundredth time. Suddenly, a car door slammed and we heard a cry for assistance. We were pulled back to reality – no more games. A group of volunteers had returned from a patrol where they had found a dying man on the side of a road and medically evacuated him to our camp. We rushed to his aid.

Tonya and I were not old friends, though she affectionately made fun of me by calling me “flaca,” Spanish for skinny, and I called her “tía.” We had met days before as she came into the No More Deaths (NMD) humanitarian aid campsite in total desperation begging us not to shoot (mistaking our camp for a military one) and pleading for water. She was 46, and I was 21. She was a migrant traveling across the U.S.- Mexico border from Guatemala trying to reunite with her young daughter in Florida and I was a social work student from Nebraska trying to gain a better understanding of the border. Our worlds could not have been more different, yet the collision of them is imprinted on my soul forever.

I had always been interested in immigration reform and human rights law, but an experience working with a humanitarian aid organization along the U.S.-Mexico border two summers ago changed everything and potentially “ruined me for life”.  My fate was sealed by a game of checkers.

It was my junior year of college that I threw myself into studying immigration issues; I familiarized myself with Latin American politics and social structures as I prepared for a practicum the following year with the St. Louis Inter- Faith Committee on Latin America (IFCLA). My research led me to a group that was facing prosecution for “littering” by hiking the migrant trails with food and medical supplies and leaving large water jugs for those in need. I knew that in order to be a true activist I had to join in their mission. I had boasted about my in-depth study and knowledge of border issues, and arrogantly explained to friends and loved ones that I wished to be in solidarity with those suffering in the desert. However, nothing could have prepared me for my stay with No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid group whose mission was to prevent the unnecessary death and suffering of migrants in the Sonoran desert.

I hiked for three hours up a mountain in one hundred degree heat with four gallons of water on my back only to find that the water jugs left out from the last team had been slashed and destroyed. I learned about the number of individuals who go missing in the desert each year, heard personal stories from volunteers about border patrol abuse, and I knelt down and prayed at a shrine of a fourteen-year-old girl who was found dead the year before by NMD volunteers. We discussed privilege, anger, guilt, and how to possibly communicate this experience to loved ones. We smiled as Roberto, Tonya’s husband, cut up onions and sprinkled them around my tent to ward off the rattlesnakes and bring me good luck according to Guatemalan customs. We danced to pop music and went swimming in a lake to remind ourselves that joy exists even in such desperate conditions. I was no longer discussing my philosophy regarding human rights and dignity; rather, I found myself at the epicenter of the immigration debate where dehydration occurs daily and migrant death is far too common.

It was not merely a service trip; it was not a learning experience, nor a project. What happened to my spirit as I reflected on top of a mountain near Arivaca, Arizona was soul shattering. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps, an organization to which I currently belong, boasts that participants of their program will “fall in love, have their hearts broken, and be ruined for life.” Though the program has been powerful, my transformation occurred two summers ago in the desert. I fell in love with the No More Deaths organization and the migrants while playing checkers with Tonya. My heart broke as I witnessed the plight of those crossing the Sonoran desert every single day and as I learned of Tonya and Roberto’s capture and detention by Border Patrol when they recovered and left our camp.  I was ruined for life.

While working at IFCLA, I was able to translate my experience and passion into practical advocacy.  My work connected my border experience with domestic immigration issues as well as international issues in Latin America.  I received direct advocacy experience and mentoring through my time at IFCLA. The organization utilizes a variety of different methods and approaches to fulfilling its mission of Accompaniment, Intervention, Investment, and Immigration. I worked with Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates to challenge legislation that would adversely affect the immigrant population of the state.  A robust and successful Immigrant Advocacy Day prevented anti-immigration bills, specifically SB 590, from being placed on the legislative calendar.  I also formed a team that successfully worked to pass a Resolution 79, which aims to curb workplace exploitation of immigrants in garment factories and declared St. Louis a Sweat-Free City.  I was an active participant of a racial profiling task force that observed court proceedings in St. Ann County to assess accusations of racial profiling of Latinos in the area.  I gave a presentation on my border experience and worked with my organization to promote speakers on immigration issues that encouraged awareness and dispelled myths. The list of activities goes on.  Most importantly, my goal was to provide a human face to the immigration debate and honor the struggle of those I met during my time at the border.

Currently, I work as a food security advocate for the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, serving a predominantly immigrant population. Social justice is not only an interest for me, but also a way of life. Whether through the pursuit of human rights law, immigration reform, or public interest law, I made a promise to fight tirelessly to protect immigrant and human rights and to recognize the dignity of every person.  Every day I remind myself of that commitment I made to Tonya, mi tía, as we played checkers like old friends, in the desert.


This article was submitted by Rosie Laughlin. She studied at St Louis University, and interned with the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America during her senior year. She currently lives in Tuscon, Arizona and is applying to law school to continue fighting for the rights and dignity of our fellow human beings.