Right now, in your country’s capitol Washington, DC, community members are fighting for the rights of workers around the world. On tax day 2009 the Sweatfree DC campaign was launched. Its goal: to make Washington, D.C. a sweatfree city. What is a sweatfree city? Well I’m glad you asked.
Those of you who are common readers of Labor is the Not a Commodity probably already know what sweatfree means as well as the different campaigns that aim to create a sweatfree world. However for those of you who don’t visit us very often, I’ll give a crash course in what sweatfree means and how many of us aim to achieve it.
First though before I go any further I want to remind you to do three things:
- Endorse Sweatfree DC!
- Send a letter to Mayor Fenty urging him to support a Sweatfree Policy!
- Join our Sweatfree DC facebook group so we can keep you up to date on the campaign
The “sweat” part of sweatfree refers to sweatshops. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office a sweatshop is “an employer that violates more than one federal or state labor law governing minimum wage and overtime, child labor, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, worker's compensation, or industry regulation” (Sweatfree Toolkit: “Answers to Common Questions”) More generally though, the International Labor Rights Forum defines sweatshops as workplaces where basic worker rights are not respected. However, these definitions fail to convey the tortuous nature of sweatshops which, for millions around the world, is a daily reality.
For example, in the King’s Land factory located in Cambodia, which produces for Walmart among others, workers get paid roughly $50 a month, however the daily pay can fluctuate from $1.08 to $2.16 a day. That is far below a living wage or even a minimum wage; that is a poverty wage. At the Menderes Tekstil factory in Turkey, which produces for IKEA, Walmart, Carrefour, Horizante, Mothercare, Otto, Ibena, Target and Kohl's, four workers have been killed due to unsafe working conditions. In one incident a worker died when he fell into the funnel of a coal boiler. After watching their coworker perish in this terrible manner, management ordered that three workers climb into the funnel themselves to retrieve their slain colleague, and were grievously injured in the process. (To learn more about the Menderes factory read ILRF’s Working for Scrooge report.) These are just two examples out of perhaps millions of violations that occur throughout the world.The other half of the definition of sweatfree is obviously the word “free.” This refers to ridding the world of sweatshops and allowing workers across the globe to work with dignity.
Now that you know what sweatfree means you are probably wondering, how on earth would one go about achieving such a lofting goal? Well, first of all, one would not. Sweatfree campaigns require a concerted community effort. While individuals can make their own effort to rid the world of sweatshops by buying from sweatfree companies (check out the 2010 Shop with a Conscience Consumer Guide to start making your effort today!), the small amount that an individual spends on clothes, even in a life time, does not amount to that much and therefore can only make so much of an impact. That’s why most organized sweatfree campaigns focus on institutions that purchase apparel and footwear. Community based sweatfree campaigns therefore mobilize around public procurement. Public procurement is a fancy phrase which means governments buying stuff. (To learn more about the link between public procurement and sweatshops read Sweatfree Communities’ ground breaking report Subsidizing Sweatshops and the follow up report Subsidizing Sweatshops II)
Governments are the largest purchasers of stuff in the world! In a single year alone governments spend millions, even billions, of dollars (your tax dollars!) buying stuff for the people that live within their jurisdiction. So, if a group of individuals wants to really make an impact, and really gain some leverage over factories using sweatshop labor, they can have their city, school district, county, state, or country say they won’t buy from factories that have abusive labor standards, they will only purchase from morally sound suppliers. But why would a city, school district, county, state, or country do that? Because you demonstrated, through an organized campaign that that is what their constituents want and you successfully got your government to pass a sweatfree procurement policy and to join the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium (to learn how to run your own campaign read Sweatfree Communities’ Sweatfree Toolkit). A Sweatfree Procurement Policy stipulates that the apparel (because the garment industry has notoriously bad labor standards) your government buys can not be made in sweatshops while the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium helps your government keep an eye on their suppliers and the factories they source from.
When entire governments decide to buy sweatfree they broaden the market for sweatfree goods. Part of the reason that sweatshops persist is that the factories producing the goods believe they will loose their business if they spend more money to pay their workers which could result in a price increase. However, when a government passes a Sweatfree Procurement Policy it demonstrates to these factories that in fact governments care just as much about the workers making their goods as the dollar amount attached to the goods they are buying. (Also, paying workers twice as much as they are currently paid would raise the price of goods a minuscule amount. Read The Dollars and $ense of the Sweatfree Consortium to learn more). And if this sounds like an argument that no government would buy, think again. There are already 188 Sweatfree Procurement Policy and resolutions adopted in the United States.
It is this struggle that the city of D.C. is currently engaged in. We have begun outreach and have a growing list of supporters from the D.C. community who back our efforts. But there is no such thing as too much support. If you support the ideals behind the logistics detailed above endorse the Sweatfree DC campaign by visiting this website. These days there is no phrase more popular than “think globally, act locally” and there is truly no better way to do this than by supporting your local sweatfree effort.