August 1, 2008 Volume 109 Number 15

Group presses Oregon to enact ‘sweat-free’ policy

Anti-sweatshop activists are hoping to persuade Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski to enact a “sweat-free” policy by executive order.

Since April, representatives of the group Sweatfree Northwest have been meeting monthly with the governor’s labor liaison and the state’s chief procurement officer to discuss such a policy. Sweatfree Northwest coordinator Elizabeth Swager said her group wants Oregon to require uniform vendors to disclose which factories are making the uniforms, and to declare that to the best of their knowledge, no local labor laws are being violated in those factories.

The campaign has been endorsed by about a dozen labor organizations, including Oregon AFSCME and Oregon State Fire Fighters Council.

The State of Oregon buys uniforms for all sorts of workers, from snow plow operators to state police officers. Activists have yet to demonstrate that any of the clothing purchased by the state was made in sweatshops, but industry trends make that increasingly likely. Sweatshops — factories that violate international labor standards and local labor laws — are the norm in the garment industry, in which companies shifted production abroad in the last 40 years to take advantage of lower wages. While there are some garment sweatshops in the United States, by far the worst abuses are in the poorer countries.

Uniforms have been one of the last bastions of U.S. apparel manufactures, owing to the small, quick turnaround nature of the market — and to the Berry Amendment, which requires the U.S. military to buy products manufactured domestically whenever possible. But Roger Heldman, co-owner of Seattle-based Blumenthal Uniforms, thinks a majority of the uniforms sold in the United States may now be supplied by foreign factories. Heldman said the police and fire uniforms his company sells to Portland and the state of Oregon are still made by union workers in several U.S. states.

Sweatfree Northwest is part of the national group Sweatfree Communities. A July 1 report by Sweatfree Communities faults Cintas, one of the vendors that sells uniforms to Oregon, for abuses at a Honduras factory it does business with. The abuses include unpaid overtime, illegally low wages, and lack of safety equipment.

If Oregon adopts the sweatfree purchasing rules, it would become the eighth state to do so, joining California, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. So far, the state commitments are largely symbolic, said Liana Foxvog, Sweatfree Communities national organizer.

The next step would be to launch the Sweatfree Consortium, which would hire independent monitors to visit factories where uniforms are made. The consortium will be launched when the group gets financial commitments from participating governments that have $100 million a year in combined purchasing power. So far, just three local jurisdictions have made the financial commitment, pledging a small percentage of the purchasing budget.

One of them is the City of Portland, which passed a “sweatfree” resolution last year. A Portland city council resolution created a committee that’s crafting an ordinance to go back for the council’s approval this fall.

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