Groups want sweatshop-free city uniforms

A coalition of labor, religious and student groups wants to make sure that the uniforms worn by Ashland firefighters, police officers and other city workers aren't made in sweatshops.

The groups are asking the City Council to adopt a resolution that would require uniform suppliers to disclose factory names and locations where goods are made.

The city would also support the creation of a sweatshop-free consortium that would help member governments by monitoring conditions in factories and sharing information.

The mayor would appoint up to seven citizens to an ad hoc committee that would craft a policy to make sure the city isn't buying from sweatshops. The majority of those citizens would have to be workers' rights advocates, under the groups' proposal.

The issue will come before the City Council during a meeting 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Ashland Civic Center, 1175 E. Main St. The council ran out of time to hear the proposal at a Dec. 2 meeting.

"We think government ought to lead the way," said Brenda Gould, secretary of Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice. "The strength of government entities across the U.S. is huge."

Cities like Portland and Olympia, Washington, have already joined the effort to ensure sweatshop-free purchasing of uniforms.

The groups supporting workers' rights plan to ask the Oregon Legislature to adopt a sweatshop-free resolution when it convenes in 2009, Gould said.

Extreme conditions

According to the local and national groups advocating for Ashland to join the effort, sweatshops are factories that repeatedly violate the laws in the countries where they are based and also flout internationally recognized labor laws.

In one example, dozens of workers in a Bangladesh clothing factory were killed when a fire broke out in 2006. Most of the survivors had to jump from windows because the only exit was locked. Neighbors had to cut grills covering the windows for the workers — who were mainly women — to escape, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported.

Also in Bangladesh, at least 48 workers died in a clothing factory fire in 2000 and 60 people died when an illegally built factory collapsed in 2006, the BBC said.

Because labor makes up only 1 to 3 percent of the cost of clothing, adopting sweatshop-free policies doesn't significantly increase the cost to buyers, advocates said.

"The difference is less than a dollar for overalls," Gould said.

After a preliminary review of the city's uniform suppliers, city staff believe city departments are already making sweatshop-free purchases. Requesting source information from vendors wouldn't cause a significant increase in expense, City Administrator Martha Bennett said in a memo to councilors.

Full costs unknown

But Bennett noted that drafting and implementing a sweatshop-free policy would cost staff time.

Ashland Finance and Administrative Services Director Lee Tuneberg said if a supplier has some part of a uniform made in a sweatshop, the city may have to choose a more expensive supplier.

"In the overall picture, the city will probably pay more for uniforms, not less," he said.

However, the city's bidding rules already allow the city to choose a supplier who is not the lowest bidder if there is a legitimate reason to do so, Tuneberg said.

The largest cost to the city could come in the form of staff time devoted to supporting the ad hoc committee of citizens.

Tuneberg, who is the city's purchasing agent, said he would have to attend the committee's meetings unless he delegated the task to someone else. Another city staff person would also have to attend meetings to record minutes. Any recommendations or reports developed by the committee would have to be put into written form by staff for presentation to the City Council.

Gould said that the advantage to having a citizens' committee would be that people with expertise in labor and business could lend their knowledge to the city.

Because the consortium of government agencies that would independently monitor conditions in factories is still in the formation phase, the cost to agencies to support the consortium is unknown.

Advocates propose that the fees be 1 percent of a city or state's apparel procurement budget. Whether there will be a minimum or maximum fee is still under discussion, Liana Foxvog, national organizer for SweatFree Communities, said in an e-mail.

The state governments of Pennsylvania and Maine plan to add small vendor fees to cover the cost of annual consortium membership fees, according to the SweatFree Communities Web site.

Meanwhile, local sweatshop-free advocates have been working to raise public awareness of the issue of clothing made in sweatshops. They held a screening of the film "Made in L.A.," which shows the plight of immigrant garment workers in America, in November at Southern Oregon University.

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Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or To post a comment, visit

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