Ban on Sweatshop Products
Becomes Rule at Local Level
By William Bole
Mayor Ed Boyle of North Olmstead, Ohio, and Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., have two things in common--a multimillion-dollar budget and a nagging conscience about the sources of products bought with that money.
Boyle doesn't want the town fire company's clothing made by exploited workers in South Asia and McCarrick doesn't want parochial school uniforms and sports equipment produced by immigrant sweatshops in northern New Jersey, or by oppressed labor anywhere else.
While a presidential task force works on implementing a new code of conduct to eliminate sweatshop products, the mayor and archbishop have pledged to make their jurisdictions free of sweatshop-made goods.
North Olmstead last March became the first city in the country to enact an anti-sweatshop ordinance, a law with bipartisan support covering all city government spending. The council acted after revelations that Kathie Lee Gifford's line of Wal-Mart clothing was subcontracted to sweatshops in Central America.
"The Gifford story really got my wife going," said Boyle. "It occurred to us that (the city) could very easily be spending taxpayers' money on sweatshop products."
McCarrick, whose 1.4-million member Archdiocese of Newark has inserted an anti-sweatshop clause into its contracts with vendors, says: "We want to look at everything we buy, to make sure we're not contributing to injustice and indignity in the workplace." He has started by checking out companies that supply uniforms to the archdiocese's 60,000 school students.
The experiments in North Olmstead and Newark, which are being watched by national leaders, are now influencing others to steer institutional dollars away from companies involved in the sweatshop trade, a task complicated by the difficulty of verifying factory conditions, especially in Third World countries.
A dozen or more cities from Bangor, Maine, to San Francisco are following North Olmstead's lead, as are several university administrations.
To keep up the pressure, anti-sweatshop groups are taking their case directly to consumers this holiday season. The New York-based National Labor Committee is distributing thousands of I Care stickers, along with cards for shoppers to leave with store managers or clerks, said spokeswoman Ellen Braune. The shopper cards include questions such as "In which countries do you source production? Are human rights respected?"
Braune said the campaign, dubbed the "holiday season of conscience," is partly aimed at prodding the White House task force to move swiftly in setting up a vigorously independent system of monitoring garment and shoe factories, said Braune.
The task force of industry, labor and human rights representatives is struggling to reach consensus on a final report to President Clinton.
Roberta Karp, vice president of corporate affairs at Liz Claiborne Inc., one of seven retail companies included in the task force, says the report will pave the way for a new association to monitor compliance with a code of conduct on wages and working conditions.
Karp, who serves as co-chairwoman of the task force, known as the Apparel Industry Partnership, says she views efforts by institutions to carve out zones free of sweatshop goods as "complementary" to the work of the presidential panel, which unveiled its code of conduct in April. "We're all trying to find ways to make sure the goods we purchase and produce are not made under exploitative conditions," she said.
Karp said the panel hopes to finish its report by the end of the year and launch the monitoring group shortly after that. Retail companies and manufacturers that join the organization and meet the standards will be able to affix No Sweat labels to their shoes and apparel, reassuring consumers about health, safety and minimum pay in factories where the items are made, she said.
While hoping for strong measures by national leaders, cities like North Olmstead and institutions such as the Catholic archdiocese in Newark are leaping ahead with their own monitoring efforts.
North Olmstead, a city of 36,000 people 13 miles west of Cleveland, spends $44 million a year on items ranging from soccer balls for recreation programs to police and firefighter uniforms. In keeping with the new ordinance, city vendors must guarantee that their manufacturers pay a just wage, do not force their employees to work more than 48 hours a week, and provide a safe working environment free of physical, sexual or verbal harassment. A just wage is defined as at least the minimum wage mandated in a given country.
Officials rely heavily on verification by vendors such as Shuttlers, a local retail clothing store. The mayor said Shuttlers recently became suspicious of an Indonesian company that produced the insignia patches sewn onto North Olmstead police uniforms; the manufacturer refused to answer questions put by Shuttlers about wages and working conditions.
Rather than lose the city's business, Shuttlers cut its ties with the Indonesian factory, and the patches now come from a unionized American company. "If you can't guarantee it, we're not going to buy it," said the mayor. "This isn't the easiest task in the world, but we're making some headway."
About 15 cities have adopted anti-sweatshop policies since June,
when Boyle made a presentation to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in San
Francisco, according to an estimate by UNITE
Boyle, the outgoing mayor, lost his reelection bid in November by a two-point margin, but not because of the sweatshop law. His opponent, Republican Norm Musial, supported the ordinance as a member of the city council.
Like North Olmstead, the Newark archdiocese is asking for a no-sweatshop guarantee from all its vendors. Church officials are working with the New Jersey Department of Labor to weed out any distributors doing business with sweatshops that operate locally in northern New Jersey. The region has about 300 garment factories that are not registered with the state, and most of these are believed to be sweatshops where immigrants work for subminimum wages, according to the labor department there.
"When people have to work for slave wages, that offends our moral sensibilities," said McCarrick, whose mother was a union garment worker. "We're trying to make it less profitable for (companies) to exploit the people who work for them."
So far, the archdiocese has checked out two of the seven vendors that supply parochial school uniforms, giving a clean bill of health to them and eight manufacturers where the uniforms originate, according to spokesman Michael Hurley.
The archdiocese has the support of Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's administration as well as U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, who spoke at the Oct. 16 news conference in Newark that kicked off the campaign. Federal officials, human rights groups and UNITE are helping to keep tabs on foreign factories. Meanwhile, an anti-sweatshop curriculum is being taught in the archdiocese's 185 elementary and secondary schools.
As students take up the issue, Duke University in Durham, N.C., has agreed to withhold its popular logo from sweatshirts, hats and replica uniforms made under abusive conditions.
The announcement in Durham followed an October campaign in which students flooded administration offices with e-mail messages demanding action. "We were fortunate. Duke has a very receptive administration and was willing to deal with the issue," said Tico Almeida, a junior who coordinates the campus group Students Against Sweatshops.
Earlier this year, Notre Dame in Indiana became the first American university to incorporate as part of its standard licensing agreement an anti-sweatshop code of conduct for businesses that make or sell products bearing the school name.
Posted December 4, 1997