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San Francisco No Longer Sweat-Free

by Tom Hayden

Antisweatshop advocates are stunned by progressive San Francisco's granting to garment contractors five-year exemptions from the city's historic "sweat-free" procurement ordinance. When Mayor Gavin Newsom signed the measure two years ago, he declared that San Francisco would lead the way to new standards in the global sweatshop economy.

How could the highly regarded liberal mayor, widely expected to rise as a state and national political figure, grant such lengthy exemptions to taxpayer-subsidized contractors who admittedly fail to comply with the sweat-free law? According to the city's own sweat-free staff, San Francisco police trousers are assembled by Flying-Cross Fechheimer, a city contractor, in Colombia, where assassins routinely gun down labor leaders.

City officials have worked hard to implement the ordinance, but they assert that the sweat-free standards are beyond what contractors are willing to accept. The toughest part of the ordinance, they say, is the requirement that contractors are liable to pay penalties for violations. But while that sticking point is a serious one, many of the contractors receiving exemptions refuse even to disclose their factory locations, a key barrier to any monitoring.

The basic point made by city officials is that there are "no compliant bidders," and police, firefighters and municipal workers simply cannot go without new uniforms. But this claim is refuted by three facts:

- A San Francisco city controller has stated that the procurement agency can avoid a supply crisis by issuing purchasing orders as needed, rather than five-year exemptions.

- Los Angeles officials say that San Francisco can attach itself to the existing LA sweat-free contract to obtain uniforms.

- While the shortage of responsible bidders is a serious problem, San Francisco officials may not have searched seriously beyond the culture of traditional contractors. For example, the Los Angeles-based American Apparel expresses willingness to enter the uniform market as a bidder, but a San Francisco official dismissed the company for "only making tee shirts."

On two occasions, the appointed San Francisco citizens' advisory committee urged officials not to issue five-year exemptions. Instead, they worked with officials on a compromise proposal that would limit exemptions to one year with the possibility of renewal; require that contractors receiving exemptions file plans for progress toward compliance with the ordinance; write criteria for awarding contracts to "most compliant" bidders; and continue to require remedial action where an exempted contractor is found in violation of the basic standards of the ordinance.

In late July, without fanfare, the talks were overtaken by the quiet issuing of the exemptions. According to the controllers' office, the exemptions will cover 77 percent of the city's garment contracts.

The city's contract with an independent monitor, the Workers Rights Consortium, was not completed until after the exemptions were decided, leaving the WRC with little if anything to monitor if factory locations are not disclosed.

As a result, the amendments proposing a more flexible rating system for awarding contracts are rolling through the San Francisco Board of Supervisors without a recognition that the five-year exemptions cripple the city's ability to enforce its sweat-free policy, which could be a case of closing the barn door after the animals have escaped. Ordinarily, San Francisco supervisors deal with broad policy issues, leaving contract matters to the mayor's office.

San Francisco officials continue to take pride in having "the most progressive standards in America" but then justify the exemptions by claiming that the standards are too high and inflexible. They offer no explanation for why any exemptions should be of five-years' duration without conditions. Without public acknowledgment, City Hall has decided to back away from its sweat-free commitment in the face of concerted lobbying by contractors like Fechheimer. At this point, only the rhetoric remains, though it is possible the issue will surface once again if and when abuses are discovered in a factory facility subsidized by San Francisco taxpayers.

By contrast, the earlier LA ordinance based on the lower standard requiring a vague "good-faith effort" by contractors has resulted in the disclosure of more than fifty factory sites in such countries as the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Kenya, Bangladesh and China. The WRC has begun working with labor and human rights advocates in those countries to uncover the abuse of sweatshop workers. If and when sweatshop violations are uncovered, the standard of "good-faith efforts" by the contractors can be evaluated by government decision-makers.

Tom Hayden is a former state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His books include The Port Huron Statement [new edition], Street Wars and The Zapatista Reader.

Copyright © 2007 The Nation

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