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Learning from SF's Sweat-Free Mistakes

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Last Wednesday's (August 29) city council hearing on a proposed sweat-free resolution, which would prevent the city and its contractors from doing business with sweatshops, was filled with joy and celebration. Anti-sweatshop activists got more than they expected from Commissioner Sam Adams.

But one looming dark cloud was quickly swept under the rug; during the hearing, Valerie Orth—the chair of San Francisco's Sweat-Free Ordinance Advisory Committee—revealed that not a single contractor has been able to comply with that city's two-year-old law. Indeed, several large contractors (equaling $7.2 million in contracts, according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian) have been given exemptions to the ordinance that will last years. In other words, San Francisco's anti-sweatshop law—the strictest in the nation—isn't being enforced.

At least part of the problem is that many city suppliers (selling things like workers' uniforms and shoes) have been reluctant to disclose the locations of their factories, or their subcontractors' names and locations. They consider such information a "trade secret" to keep from competitors, but there's also the possibility they're using the excuse to hide their sweatshop facilities. Whatever the reason, it's obviously a major obstacle to enforcement.

Last week, city council voted to create a sweatshop-free policy work group, which will be formed by Adams and will spend the next year writing Portland's eventual ordinance. Adams' office is taking the approach that involving suppliers in drafting the policy will lead to a less adversarial relationship between the city and the industry—unlike in San Francisco.

But there may already be one logistical problem to that approach: Adams decided at the last minute to not allow suppliers to be voting members of the work group; they'll only be brought in as "expert witnesses." His 180-degree switch on the issue was met with shocked jubilation from the sweat-free activists. But Jeff Baer, the director of Portland's Bureau of Purchasing, believes that San Francisco's problems, and Portland's potential problems, are because suppliers aren't able to help write the policy.

Still, Baer says that bringing suppliers in as experts should help create a manageable policy. In the meantime, a nationwide "consortium" of cities and states with sweat-free policies will be finalized, representing $100 million in purchasing power, which could be enough to convince suppliers to change their sweatshop ways.

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