In San Francisco, lawmakers often pass non-binding resolutions that stake out a position on national or international issues. The principled gesture of supporting or opposing a cause with just words can at times be noteworthy and admirable, but it is much more powerful when San Francisco takes a stance that actually will effect change.
It was 2005 when the Board of Supervisors adopted the Sweatfree Contracting Ordinance, a law meant to ensure that city and county agencies did not purchase linens that originated in sweatshops. The legislation, which was signed into law by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, was updated by a 2007 ordinance that allowed the evaluation of contracts to make sure the companies complied with the anti-sweatshop provisions.
The ordinance could have ended up as just another well-intentioned-but-toothless statement by San Francisco that contained grandiose ideals but became lost in a sea of bureaucracy. Thankfully, this issue did not slip into oblivion. A report started in early 2011 by the independent-rights-monitoring organization Worker Rights Consortium focused on a subcontractor to a company from which San Francisco purchased pants for jail inmates. The investigation, which was funded by San Francisco, documented a range of violations at a Dominican Republic factory, including underpayment of workers, sexual harassment and worker-safety issues.
San Francisco attempted to work with the company, Gardena-based Robinson Textiles, to resolve the workplace issues at the factory run by subcontractor ITIC Apparel. But instead of remedying the situation at the site, Robinson Textiles chose to end the contract with San Francisco, according to the chairman of the Sweatfree Procurement Advisory Group.
It turns out that San Francisco had only purchased about $1,100 worth of pants from the company, about 144 pairs, before the firm decided to call it quits. But that does not mean this is not a strong statement about the global workers’ rights. San Francisco has partnered with 11 other cities and three states in an attempt to multiply the financial impact once a company has been found not to be complying with fair labor standards. Although San Francisco’s contract with Robinson Textiles may not have been for a substantial amount, other municipalities should also be able to scrutinize their contracts with the company now that the report has been completed.
San Francisco should continue to probe the contractors that want to do business with the city or county. Every year, San Francisco buys about $2.6 million worth of textiles, such as pillows, blankets and clothing. This money can continue to make a statement by being withheld from any company that fails to support workers’ rights.