If you had walked into room 500 of the John A. Wilson building at 10:30 am on March 23rd to attend the public hearing discussing Bill 18-610 and 18-635, you might have wondered if you were in the right place and if perhaps you had somehow walked into a union meeting instead. The room was a sea of purple SEIU t-shirts, black AFL-CIO wind breakers, and stickers reading “NO TAX DOLLARS FOR SWEATSHOPS” and “I SUPPORT RESPONSIBLE CONTRACTING.” The hearing room was literally packed to the gills with workers, organizers, and community members all asking for the same thing: responsible contracting. In other words, they all want steps in the purchasing process that take labor into consideration which can range from looking at company’s past labor records before giving them a contract to requiring vendors to disclose factory sources so we can know the District is not helping to perpetuate sweatshop conditions.
This was a turning point event for the Sweatfree DC Campaign. After months of research and preparation, and one intense final month of coalition building and meetings with city officials, we were finally able to make our case before the committee itself and before its Chair, Councilmember Mary Cheh, whose bill we hope to amend. To anyone outside of the Sweatfree Procurement movement, procurement might seem like something few would either care or know about, however Tuesday’s hearing proved quite the opposite with a witness list twenty-five people long from all different segments of the community. Business, labor, faith-based organizations, and regular citizens were all present to make their case for procurement reform that would take their interests into consideration. According to the DC Office of Contracting and Procurement website, government procurement accounts for $9.8 million of the DC budget and provides government services to roughly 600,000 residents. The average DC resident may not realize how much procurement affects their daily life but based on these numbers it’s obviously a substantial amount. Anything and everything the government buys, whether it is goods or services, falls under the umbrella of government procurement. If for no other reason, this should be of interest to every DC resident because it is their tax dollars being used to purchase these goods and services.
To testify on the need for a Sweatfree policy and help give an idea of the scope of the problem Bama Athreya, ILRF’s Executive Director, spoke about her experiences abroad when she visited and interviewed Sweatfree workers in Southeast Asia. “… We cannot ignore the fact that the flight of [the apparel industry] is driven by the ‘race to the bottom.’ Multinational corporations seek out production destinations where there is little or no regulation of labor or environmental conditions; they find such destinations in the developing world,” she explained. “Mari was a young friend of mine in Indonesia, working in a garment factory… When it rained the girls would stand at their machines, ankle-deep in water, as there was not sufficient drainage. The girls typically worked 10 to 12 hours per day, six days a week and a half-day on Sundays… Mari and her friends, and their working conditions, were so much like the conditions I saw in many other countries. This is the way an unregulated apparel industry treats its workers.” Her testimony clearly demonstrated the need for action and went on to explain the unique and powerful position that governments are in that allows them to act and effect change in factories around the world by adopting Sweatfree Policies (see what other cities and states have already adopted policies here: http://www.sweatfree.org/policieslist).
Hers was not the only compelling testimony making the case for workers’ rights protections. Two striking Wings Enterprises employees testified, explaining how they were injured on the job and had not received any health care benefits or workers compensation to cover medical expenses (learn more about their struggle by reading about the DC Jobs with Justice campaign Justice at Wings Campaign). Not long after the Wings testimonies, two former Hawk One employees testified, detailing their struggle to receive payment for their last two weeks of work after Hawk One, a former security contractor for the city, suddenly went out of business leaving employees unpaid and unemployed (listen to an interview with SEIU’s Julie Karant about the former Hawk One employees situation). It was clear that the many worker testimonies were striking a chord with Chairperson Mary Cheh, who did not leave her seat for the full seven hours of the hearing, and Councilmember Kwame Brown who made intermittent appearances. Both Cheh and Brown made powerful statements about the need for DC worker protections. Brown passionately spoke about how unacceptable it was for DC employees to be underpaid and overworked and abused by their employers.
By the end of the literally 5 hours of testimony one thing was abundantly clear: workers rights are not being protected under the current procurement system. Contractors that have pending lawsuits against them for sexual discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, and wage theft are getting multiple year contracts with the District. Also, we have no way of knowing where the District’s apparel and footwear is being manufactured because vendors are not required to disclose the locations and names of the factories they sources from. When David Gragan, the District’s Chief Procurement Officer, took the stand after public testimony was over Chairperson Cheh wanted to know why contracts were being awarded to such irresponsible company’s and what could be changed to prevent it from happening in the future. Gragan had been present for the all of the public testimonies, he had seen the crowded room and heard witness after witness urge the committee to take workers into consideration when they finalized their reform bills, and now he knew all eyes were on him. At an oversight hearing on February 23, 2010, witnesses had testified to the need for responsible contracting in the District, yet Gragan’s prepared testimony did not touch on these issues; only after being prompted by the Chairperson were they addressed.
Although the hearing was a great success and raised important awareness about workers’ rights and public procurement it was clear that it was only a first step. The procurement coalition effectively demonstrated that they have a significant following of active individuals. However, it is important that we continue to maintain a firm presence in the committee’s and council’s eye as they begin to mark-up the bills. You can help maintain this presence by sending letters of support to Mayor Fenty and Councilmember Cheh urging them to keep workers in mind as they work to reform the DC procurement process. You can also endorse the Sweatfree DC campaign here. For more information on how to get involved with the campaign contact Trina Tocco at [email protected].