Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Innovations: Public Procurement with a Conscience

Mar 1, 2010

Although efforts to adopt decent labor standards through free trade agreements are stymied on the international level, activists in the United States are quietly making progress on the local level. At last count, 39 cities, 15 counties, and eight states have adopted policies expressed under a common banner: No taxpayer money for sweatshop goods!

These policies are promoted by a nongovernmental network, Sweatfree Communities, founded in 2003 by anti-sweatshop activists who had been working separately in Maine, Minnesota, New York, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. They now work together with a three-prong strategy:

  • Petitioning the government entity nearest and most responsive to them;
  • Concentrating their efforts on an important function of that government: the procurement of supplies; and
  • Aiming initially at a specific goal in public procurement: uniforms and other apparel for firefighters, police officers, other public workers, and prisoners.

Yet even a clever strategy needs wide support. Such support was evident in November last year at the Sweatfree Communities national summit in Washington, D.C. The event, the network's sixth annual gathering, had the financial and moral support of a wide array of organizations, including national units of the United Church of Christ, Catholic and Methodist churches, Georgetown University's Harrison Institute of Public Law, the International Labor Rights Forum, and Global Exchange. In California, many of these organizations, as well as the Progressive Jewish Alliance, were partners in a coalition that persuaded the municipalities of Berkeley, Los Angeles, Portland, and San Francisco to adopt sweat-free procurement policies.

Forty campaign leaders from around the country, mostly volunteers, participated in the November gathering. A highlight was the launching of a major initiative, the National Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium. Its goal is to translate sweat-free principles into practice by matching sweat-free procurement with a set of sweat-free factories.

The vast garment industry, spanning every time zone, is not set up to meet the unprecedented and widely dispersed demand for sweat-free products. When fully operational, the Consortium, headed mostly by representatives of government agencies committed to sweat-free principles, will help supply meet demand. It is already building a database of factories and reliable suppliers committed to taking the moral high ground. The overriding aim is to create an institutional framework that transforms sweatshop work into decent work.

A big gap in procurement policy exists on the federal level, as Bjorn Claeson, the network's executive director, points out. The U.S. government spends around $4 billion per year on textiles and finished apparel. Part of the Washington meeting was spent on Capitol Hill informing Congressional staffers of the statutory gap that permits federal procurement from sweatshops.

For sweat-free-minded procurement officers at any level of government, the Consortium will:

  • Provide a model contract that includes a code of conduct binding on the supplier and any subcontractors;
  • Connect procurement officers to factories prescreened as sweat-free, both inside and outside the United States; and
  • Serve as the coordinating point for independent monitoring of factories, investigating complaints, and enforcing remedies.

As their draft working paper on procurement [PDF] puts it: "The Consortium intends to help public jurisdictions act with combined strength and resources, allowing each to share the costs and benefits of obtaining information and expertise, and of monitoring and enforcing respective sweat-free requirements."

There is no one way to reform sweatshops. New trade legislation—necessary as it is to safeguard worker rights globally—will not do the job alone. A combination of governmental and nongovernmental levers is needed. One of those key levers is public procurement with a conscience.

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