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 (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

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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.

A ‘SweatFree’ Future

It has become a habit of mine to take a peak at the tags before I purchase any clothing item.  It seems that nine times out of ten when I look at the label it reads:  “Made in China”, or recently, “Made in Bangladesh”, as these two countries have become the top clothing manufacturers in the world.  But, that isn’t the only thing they hold in common.  As well as the top manufacturers, they both have less human rights protections for their workers and citizens. Coincidence? Not at all.  In fact, their lack of protections is how they have been able to hold the title of mega-world-clothing-manufacturers.

Bangladesh and China are able to compete so well in the apparel industry because they can offer the cheapest of the cheap when it comes to their products.  These clothing factories are able to produce more-than-affordable apparel items because they slash their costs by lowering their employees wages and cutting corners when it comes to factory safety.  In other words, these factories are running on sweatshop practices where their workers are subject to extreme exploitation. These sweatshop laborers usually work 60-80 hours per week and are not paid enough money to put food on the table and care for their families. Often, the sweatshop environment they are forced to work in is unsafe.  They are harassed, they work overtime without compensation, and are made to work in dangerous and unhealthy environments.

So, these workers produce a cheaply made product, which is then sold to retailers here in the United States, and then we purchase these items at ridiculously inflated prices.  And then the cycle continues, keeping these factories open and allowing sweatshops to become the norm.  Sweatshops are not a thing of the past.  They are a trend today and will continue unless it is made possible for these factories to run in an ethical manner.  Let’s not allow sweatshops to be the norm. Let’s push for improved workers rights and better-quality products.

Easier said then done?  I think not.  Think before you buy.  Look for ‘fair trade labels’ or search around for stores that boast about their ethically made products.  Do a little investigating and check into production practices of your favorite clothing stores.  Sweatshops are being exposed and the information is out there.  A simple google search could surprise you.  Some searches may return positive news stories, and some may show you an ugly truth.  Either way, it’s time to start thinking before you buy.

If you’re like me and you have an inner-activist in you waiting to get out, then ‘thinking before you buy’ won’t be enough.  It’s surprising how few people know how their products are being produced.  Education is another step we can take to help end sweatshop labor.  Get the word out there.  Write a letter to your local government telling them how important this is to you.  Government is a force, and that force can be used to put an end to labor injustices.  Along with that, you can build a ‘SweatFree’ community in your town.  We are doing this right here in St. Louis and we hope the trend spreads.

SweatFree Communities, a campaign of the International Labor Rights Forum, assists sweatshop workers globally in their struggles to improve working conditions and form strong, independent unions.  If your local government decides to become a SweatFree Community they will sign onto a Resolution or create an ordinance that will require them to look into buying practices of their own uniforms and apparel.  SweatFree Communities have become a national trend, and their website is filled with useful information to assist you and your town.  Even if you are not interested in helping your community become SweatFree, take a gander at their website.  It provides information on ethical clothing producers and up-to-date news releases on sweatshops around the world (you may be surprised to see some are right here in the United States).

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Contributed by Kara Sheehan, affiliate of the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America