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 (www.dosomething.org). 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