By Eric Dirnbach
Sweatshop working conditions have long been documented in the global apparel supply chain, including in factories that make public sector uniforms. Recently an investigation of a factory in the Dominican Republic that supplied uniforms to the City and County of San Francisco uncovered many problems, including sexual and verbal harassment, underpayment of wages, and occupational safety violations (see the Labor Rights Hotspot in the July issue of the Consortium’s newsletter). Many cities and states have “sweatfree” procurement laws that require decent working conditions in the factories that supply their apparel, and the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium was formed in 2010 to assist them in this effort. The Consortium facilitates the sharing of information, resources, and best practices to increase the effectiveness of sweatfree purchasing.
Many public entities have asked for better guidance in drafting sweatfree procurement laws to ensure their maximum effectiveness. The Consortium recently took an important step forward toward this goal. The newly elected Board of Directors approved a new Sweatfree Model Policy. The result of many months of research and discussions with experts and stakeholders, this Policy is a recommendation of language for cities and states to consider when crafting their sweatfree procurement laws and rules.
The Georgetown advisors started with a previous model policy that had long been promoted by SweatFree Communities, a national coalition of labor rights groups, and reframed its philosophical and legal foundation. Here is a summary from the Findings section of the new model policy:
- Global supply chains – Contractors rarely make the apparel they sell, and increasingly manage distribution services at the end of global supply chains in which independent factories compete with each other.
- Sweatshop conditions – Global supply chains acquire their apparel from “sweatshops” that violate domestic standards on wages, hours, workplace safety, and health, as well as international standards on freedom of association and prohibition of forced labor, child labor, and discrimination.
- Competitive bidding – Under these conditions, government contractors can gain a competitive advantage from sourcing their production in sweatshops with the lowest-cost labor in the least-regulated locales. When labor-law violators have an advantage, they discourage law-abiding producers from competing for public contracts. Contractors who source from sweatshops undermine the integrity of the competitive procurement process.
- Authority – Public entities have the legal authority to preserve the integrity of their procurement process for apparel and may evaluate contractors’ capacity to deliver apparel and distribution services fairly. Such an evaluation includes a review of their capacity to ensure compliance with domestic labor laws in the country of production and international standards of decent work.
Thus given the poor labor conditions that prevail in global apparel production, public entities can only protect open and fair competition by using sweatfree criteria to ensure labor law violators do not benefit from public contracts. In other words, the primary intent of sweatfree procurement is to preserve the integrity of the procurement process, which will ensure decent working conditions and protect workers’ rights. The converse is also true: decent working conditions in the supply chain helps ensure open and fair competition for public contracts.
The Policy also features an expanded section on compliance with the International Labor Organization (ILO) core conventions, outlined in the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, on freedom of association and collective bargaining, and bans on discrimination, child labor and forced labor. The new Policy provides more clarity on how contractors should meet ILO standards, providing specific examples of non-compliant behavior. There is also more comprehensive language on how public entities could implement a living wage policy for factory workers, including the possibility of utilizing a “wage ladder”, where wages are gradually increased over time. An ongoing challenge is to reconcile the ILO Conventions with local law in various countries that have weaker standards, for example, on freedom of association. The new Policy handles this issue by requiring as much compliance as possible. Contractors must honor the ILO standards by “permitting all activities related to freedom of association that are not prohibited by domestic law, and avoiding practices that violate international standards…unless a practice is mandated by domestic law.”
The Consortium will continue to work on this issue to find ways to address problems in countries without freedom of association. The Consortium will make this Policy available to public entities that are considering sweatfree procurement. We hope it will help to harmonize standards and procedural requirements, increase compliance with labor standards, improve working conditions in the supply chain, and ensure fair competition for public apparel contracts.
Eric Dirnbach is the Vice President of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium.