Sweatfree rally encourages city to take the jump
Source: The Portland Alliance
Author: Maya Smeloff
On a grey Monday afternoon in February, organizers held a rally that will hopefully help to change the way Portland purchases goods on the global market.
Organizers have been in discussion with the Portland City Council since mid-summer 2006 for the city to pass a sweatshop free purchasing ordinance, which will mean that businesses operating in Portland would be required to follow a code of conduct which guarantees that all goods sold in the city are produced in a manner that meets basic labor and human rights standards. If voted in, Portland will ally with 170 other cities in the United States, including San Francisco and Los Angeles to join a sweatfree procurement consortium.
Look out Wal-Mart — Portland's salvo is ready to fire.
The Portland Sweatfree Coalition, which organized the rally, seeks to end state-funded purchasing of products made by sweatshop labor, including, but not limited to, the apparel industry. Often unnoticed by everyday citizens, taxpayer- funded subsidies go to purchasing large quantities of products for use by government employees without considering the supply-chain and how products are made. A sweatshop free ordinance would require manufacturers who are in a business contract with Portland to disclose the locations of their suppliers’ factories and ensure non-poverty wages, compensation for hours worked, freedom of association and other labor rights.
Fair labor standards as a condition of procurement would be monitored by an independent group and would follow both international and local laws as standards for enforcing sweatfree policies. This would include monitoring suppliers' factories, and vendors' and subcontractors' places of manufacturing. The sphere of influence is still minimal, but Deborah Schwartz, coordinator of the Portland Sweatfree Campaign says it is up to local governments to utilize political leverage and market power by refusing to do business with known human and labor rights violators.
The rally began at noon on Feb. 19 with a respectable turnout. Guest speaker Gloria Gonzalez, union president of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), was the first to testify in front of the crowd.
According to the Portland Bureau of Purchasing files, the city has a contract with Russells, a known human rights violator that operates Hermosa, a manufacturing company in El Salvador. Hermosa currently owes their employees over a million dollars in back wages. Columbia Sportswear also uses an apparel facility in El Salvador called Evergreen, which unlawfully fired 300 employees who sought to organize for fair wages and benefits. These two companies regularly do business in Portland without regard for workers rights in El Salvador.
The next speaker was Portland's own Ed Hall, vice president of the Portland Firefighters Association. Hall said firefighters are particularly concerned with sweatshops because of historical events which have killed hundreds of workers in factories all over the world. He spoke of a fire on Feb. 23, 2006, in a sub-standard Bangladesh garment factory where children as young as 10 to 13-years-old worked and died in an uncontrolled fire.
Besides fair wages and benefits, sub-standard working conditions and fire codes are a major concern to Portland firefighters and are frequent violations in sweatshops around the globe.
Following Hall was Beatrice Fuentes. Fuentes is a mother of two and leader of the Columbia flower workers union. She has worked for the Dole Fresh Flowers plantation which supplies Wal-Mart and Albertson's. Flower workers will typically work 14 to 18-hour shifts in the weeks leading up to Valentine's Day and can be fired without notice after peek production ends. Due to grueling hours of work, many women now suffer from repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Often, sick women are fired because of missed days for seeking medical treatment, a standard practice many Portland workers take for granted.
Five years ago, Fuentes and others started organizing and immediately found opposition from multinational companies seeking to make a profit. On Oct. 12, 2006, John Amaya, president of Dole Fresh Flowers, closed down a plantation instead of negotiating with workers for fair wages and fair working hours. Many women lost their jobs and were never compensated by Dole for past due wages. Yet Dole earned a profit this Valentine’s Day from flowers produced by women like Fuentes.
Speaker Kotagarahali Jayarami, a sweatshop garment worker from India, recounted his experiences as a teenager working in factories supplying directly to Wal-Mart. "People work incredibly long hours under unsafe, exploitive conditions to make garments bound for the United States," said Jayarami. But "city governments can help change those practices by enacting policies that create a greater market for sweatfree goods."
After a bit of chanting from the crowd, the final speaker of this hour-long rally was Dan Gardner, Oregon's Labor Commissioner. According to Gardner, public money should not go to companies that do not uphold “reasonable and necessary steps to protect workers.” Gardner believes that a vast majority of Americans wouldn't mind paying more for clothes made under proper conditions, including taxes used to pay for government employees' uniforms.
Schwartz, the coordinator of the Campaign, said that opposition to the consortium comes from the way in which the independent monitoring organization would be funded. The monitoring wing of this consortium would operate as a public agency with full transparency and accountability but would need funding from each state and city joining such a coalition (i.e., tax dollars). This funding would go to rigorous investigation of supply chain factories, including public disclosure of factory locations; verifying factory health and safety conditions, wage rates and overtime compensation; and demonstrable action toward resolving identified violations.
Consumers may pay more, but if voted in, the ordinance would create a cohesive market with workers across the globe.
Maya Smeloff is living in Portland by way of California.