Business

Portland Approves Sweatshop-Free Resolution

OPB | Aug. 29, 2007 7:48 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:19 a.m. | Portland, OR

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By Colin Fogarty

The Portland City Council took a stand Wednesday against having city employees wear uniforms made in sweatshops. The resolution doesn't immediately ban clothing made with sweatshop labor for clothing worn by city police, firefighters, and other employees. That turns out to be a complicated undertaking, as Colin Fogarty reports.




The sweatshop ordinance attracted a large audience to the Portland City Council chambers. Commissioner Sam Adams asked the crowed not disrupt the testimony with applause.

Instead, he encouraged what he called “jazz hands.” So, when the testimony proved popular, the room erupted with the silent hand waggling that is sign language for applause.

Such was the case when Chie Abad testified. She's with Global Exchange an anti-sweatshop group. Eight years ago, Abad was a garment worker in the US territory of Saipan.

Chie Abad: "Inside the factory, we had not ventilation at all. We drank rain water. And we had a quota system that we had to finish every hour. I also used to live in a squalid, unsanitary, overcrowded barracks. And most of all, women are fired if they got pregnant."

The resolution Abad is supporting will require clothing suppliers to the city of Portland to disclose the names and locations of their manufacturers. The resolution also sets up a committee to craft a more detailed ordinance.

One supporter of the policy was Heidi Carlson, owner of a boutique in northeast Portland. She told the city council that finding clothing made without sweatshop labor is hard work, but she does it anyway.

Heidi Carlson: "And even though I ask as many questions as I can before working with a new company, when the shipments arrive, sometimes we discover that some of the items weren't made where and how they told me and I have to send them back, which then messes up my whole season. So why do I go through this effort? It should go without saying. But it's the right thing to do. I couldn't sleep at night knowing that I made money off of someone else's suffering."

Commissioner Sam Adams was so inspired to shop by Carlson's testimony, he wanted to shop at her boutique. Nonetheless, one of Carlson's points — that buying sweatshop free is hard to do — is not lost on the city council. That's what San Francisco found after it approved the strictest sweatshop free policy in the nation in 2005.

The chair of that city's Sweatfree Advisory Group, Valaeri Orth, says implementing a sweatshop-free policy proved more difficult that the sponsors of the idea expected.

Valerie Orth: "I'm not sure if they were aware how much we were going to fight for actual enforcement and implementation of it, and the extreme amount of sweatshops and what a large problem it is. And so now that we're facing enforcement, companies are coming forward and saying they won't comply with the law."

The details of Portland's sweatshop free policy will be worked out by the new committee created under the new resolution. City purchasing manager Jeff Baer said suppliers should be included on the committee. That was an idea that didn't sit well with activists like Bill Michtom.

Bill Michtom: "Suppliers will have no authority to make policy. Is that correct?"

Sam Adams: "Correct."

Commissioner Sam Adams said having suppliers on the committee would pose a conflict of interest. And so the committee will take only input from those companies.

Bill Michtom: "Well, then I have just one thing, not to say, but to do." (crowd reacts vocally)

Michtom did a “jazz hands” waggle in support of the resolution and the city council unanimously voted it into effect. But Portland still faces the difficulty of figuring out which clothing manufacturers treat its workers well enough to qualify as sweatfree.

Commissioner Adams says he's hoping the Portland resolution will help a national inspection group — called Sweatfree Communities, Inc — to get moving.

Sam Adams: "So it really is so important to get that national consortium off the ground, because most cities, counties, and states, we all buy uniforms from a very similar group of suppliers, and so really drilling in on suppliers that we can certify as sweat free is really going to change things."

The new city ordinance sets aside $20,000 dollars for that national consortium aiming to certify manufacturers as sweatshop free.

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