Brett Eisenbrown, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
The use of sweatshops to produce the goods we consume is not the exception but, unfortunately, it is the rule. While the very idea of people having to endure such working conditions in order to try and provide for themselves and their families is deplorable, the idea that our tax dollars are being used to support sweatshop conditions only increases the injustice of the situation. Unfortunately, it is true that our tax dollars are supporting sweatshops, poverty wage jobs in our economy, and employers that continually violate the rights of workers worldwide.
It was the issue of public procurement and ending the use of taxpayer dollars to fund sweatshops, both domestically and internationally, that was central to the Policy Forum held on November 6th. The Policy Forum, entitled Strengthening Core Labor Standards through Public Procurement Reform, was sponsored by U.S. Representatives Mike Michaud and Phil Hare and organized by SweatFree Communities (SFC) and the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF). In addition, the forum was the first event held for the National SweatFree Summit that started November 6th and ran until November 8th in Washington, DC.
It is important to realize that just because the items are being purchased by the government, it doesn’t mean workers are being treated well. At the Policy Forum, Albert Torres, a garment worker for Propper International, discussed the difficulties workers faced despite government contracts. Propper International is one of the largest manufactures of military and law enforcement uniforms and has several factories in Puerto Rico. Albert talked about how workers are often forced to work in small, dusty, and hot work spaces, they often lack the material needed to complete the job, are forced to work on vacation days, and have experienced serious retaliation from Propper after trying to form a union. Another worker spoke out about the conditions at Propper for a special series on the impact of labor rights abuses on Working Mothers as part of ILRF's 2009 Mother's Day series. You can read Maritza's story here.
The difficulties that Albert and other workers face also highlight another problem that is occurring with government procurement contracts; a lack of proper monitoring. Albert made it clear that when monitors come to the factory they are only there to inspect the quality of the garments produced and not the quality of the working conditions. The lack of adequate independent monitors, who are often paid by the brands themselves, offers factories the opportunity to pass an audit without actually abiding by labor standards.
The use of public procurement could play a crucial role in helping to fill the gap between the international labor standards, corporate codes of conduct, and national labor laws and the lack of adequate enforcement. Public procurement has substantial purchasing power. In the United States, federal procurement makes up 20 percent of GDP. In addition, the use of procurement at all levels, federal, state, and local, provides collective power in reforming the practices of factories and corporations as they pertain to the rights of workers.
As a part of the forum, a white paper was released on what steps need to be undertaken in order to improve labor standards through public procurement. Some of the suggestions included the need to expand what prevents a company from being able to contract with the government. Procurement contracts must also provide a reasonable time for fulfillment of orders, the creation of long-term stable relationships, educating workers about their rights, and insuring a fair price is paid to subcontractors. In addition, for procurement reform to be successful, truly independent monitoring must be completed, by organizations, like the Workers Right Consortium (WRC), who are not funded by the apparel industry.
It must also be made clear that this type of procurement reform will not make the process of bidding for contracts less competitive. The goal of procurement reform is to keep incentives for companies while at the same time respecting the rights of workers that produce the goods. An increase in labor standards does not spell the end of competitiveness. For example, when the state of Maryland required a living wage standard for contracts, the average number of bidders actually went up. The race to bottom doesn’t have to exist and the ability to use public procurement as means of improving labor conditions could provide incentives for companies to be more socially responsible. While procurement reform will not be an easy thing to achieve, it is definitely doable and most importantly crucial to the lives of workers around the world.