Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Executive Director, Philadelphia Jobs With Justice
by Isaiah Thompson
Published: Jul 9, 2008
In 2004, Gov. Ed Rendell signed an executive order prohibiting state agencies from contracting with companies that use sweatshop labor. But good intentions are one thing — action is another.
On July 1, the Philadelphia chapter of Jobs With Justice, a group that advocates for workers rights, sent Rendell a letter, drawing his attention to a new report issued by the nonprofit SweatFree Communities, which identifies eight brands being purchased by various state and federal agencies that are manufactured partially in sweatshops. Pennsylvania, the report says, buys four of them: Dickies; Lion Apparel; Blauer, which make uniforms; and Rocky Brands, which makes shoes. Blauer uniforms, the group says, are worn by state police officers.
Jobs With Justice is now asking Rendell to join a proposed multistate "Sweatfree Consortium," which would pool money to send independent investigators to overseas factories. Suggested dues are roughly 1 percent of what each member state spends on garment procurement — in the case of Pennsylvania, where approximately $10 million is spent annually, about $100,000.
Fabricio Rodriguez, a former underground miner and executive director of Philadelphia Jobs With Justice, explains why his organization got involved.
City Paper: Didn't Gov. Rendell already agree not to buy products made in sweatshops?
Fabricio Rodriguez: What the governor is saying is that if you're a vendor who sells us uniforms, then you have to assure us that the people who actually make those uniforms are not making them in sweatshop conditions.
The thing is, those vendors have to take the word of a producer, because there's no oversight — these guidelines are hard to enforce and to monitor. We teamed up with SweatFree Communities, which has worked on arrangements like this around the world, and they did an investigation where they basically hired third-party investigators to do one-on-one interviews with people who produce these garments that end up on state workers. And what we found is that a lot of them aren't really making the grade.
CP: What did the investigators find?
FR: For one thing, we know there's a factory in China that produces Blauer uniforms for Pennsylvania state police — and not just Pennsylvania, but other states also. In this factory we found that there are workers as young as 14. Right now, we're getting some pushback from the state — people saying that the uniforms purchased in Pennsylvania aren't being made by kids. But unless there was a special box set aside for Pennsylvania, which contained no clothing made by 14-year-olds, that isn't very likely.
CP: Are you asking the state to stop buying from these companies?
FR: No — once we have this inspection regime going, there's going to be some back and forth between producers and vendors, and there's got to be reasonable time for the producers to come to compliance. But if they can't meet the standards, we expect that the next logical step is to go to someone who can. It's definitely good to be making whatever product as efficiently as possible. But efficiency shouldn't mean exploitation — we have a situation here where we think that there needs to be a higher standard.
CP: Why should workers here care about what happens in overseas factories?
FR: Well one thing we hope comes out if this is that by linking the labor movement here with workers in other countries, we can begin to change the attitude of the labor movement here — if it's only about pitting works against each other, the ones who lose are the ones here, because those jobs are moving elsewhere. If you can bring working folk together who face the same hardships — putting food on the table, finding time to raise their kids — if you can bring them together, it protects everybody.
I'll be honest, we don't know what the outcome of this is going to be — we've got to start somewhere.
CP: Are you hopeful that Gov. Rendell will join the consortium?
FR: From what we understand, he's going to. We haven't seen anything in writing, but he took initiative on this before, and we're really trying to bump this up on his priority list. We think he's going to try and do something for us.
Jobs With Justice will be hosting a Workers Rights Board hearing featuring a panel made up of garment workers from Bangladesh, Mexico and Saipan, Sat., July 12, 11 a.m., Broad Street Ministries, 315 S. Broad St. A rally is to follow at 12:30 p.m.