Making City Hall Sweat: Using Procurement Power for Worker Rights

Source: Bjorn Claeson and Eric Dirnbach, New Labor Forum, Vol. 18 no. 1, Winter 2009
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Los Angeles passed a sweatfree procurement ordinance in November 2004, covering the city’s estimated $3 million worth of apparel procurement each year. Effective enforcement began two years later when the city hired the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) to study its apparel procurement and undertake investigations of factories in their apparel supply chain. The WRC, a labor rights group founded in 2000 to investigate factories that produce university-licensed apparel, now also works in the area of public apparel procurement. Gathering information about the city’s uniform suppliers, WRC investigators learned about severe worker rights violations in a factory called New Wide Garment in Cambodia, a contractor which employed 1,400 workers and manufactured uniforms for Williamson-Dickie, which supplied them to Los Angeles through a local vendor. The WRC found violations of numerous provisions of the city ordinance’s Contractor Code of Conduct, including discrimination against pregnant workers, restrictions on workers’ access to toilets and health clinics, and the inappropriate dismissal of a worker who was exercising her freedom of association rights. Pressure from the city led the contractor to reinstate the fired worker and make several positive changes in its policies that corrected these violations. Los Angeles also ceased purchasing Rocky Brands products when the company refused to respond to allegations of worker rights violations in contractor facilities in China. This is the first known instance of a city canceling a contract due to violations of sweatfree purchasing rules.

Anti-sweatshop activists have long engaged in solidarity campaigns with workers, targeting corporations that provide apparel for universities or retail customers. But now cities like Los Angeles are a new partner in this fight against sweatshops. Activists, in alliance with workers and unions like UNITE HERE, have succeeded in many locales to raise awareness of the global sweatshop problem and how responsible public purchasing practices can improve standards in an apparel industry where the race to the bottom is the norm. UNITE HERE, the principal North American apparel and textile workers union, has been closely involved in this campaign as part of its fight against global apparel sweatshop conditions and it recognizes that raising global labor standards in the industry helps both foreign and domestic workers, including its own members. Over the last decade, many states, cities, counties, and school districts have become concerned about the sweatshop labor conditions under which the apparel they purchase is produced, passing similar ordinances designed to help improve working conditions. This growing movement for ethical procurement is about to take another important step.

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