San Francisco's humane-goods initiative could boost local manufacturing economy 

After a 2012 probe found San Francisco County Jail uniforms were being made in poor conditions overseas, The City is trying to source new jail outfits locally. - MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/2004 AP FILE PHOTO
  • Marcio Jose Sanchez/2004 ap file photo
  • After a 2012 probe found San Francisco County Jail uniforms were being made in poor conditions overseas, The City is trying to source new jail outfits locally.

When San Francisco launched an effort to ensure that local government purchases goods manufactured by fairly treated workers, it was aware of the challenges ahead. To help address some of those hurdles, The City is launching a pilot program that could have the added benefit of boosting the local manufacturing industry.

Local manufacturers will have the opportunity to show their stuff with proposals for producing uniforms for San Francisco's inmate jail population.

The effort comes after a city-funded investigation last year found that San Francisco purchased 144 orange uniforms for County Jail inmates from a company whose subcontractor's working conditions in a Dominican Republic factory violated city standards.

City Administrator Naomi Kelly, who oversees government contracts, said San Francisco is starting with inmate garments because they are the easiest government uniforms to produce, compared to the more complicated police, fire or Muni uniforms.

"Based on our initial research, we should be able to fund four to six pilots to develop patterns, an array of samples and cost estimates for production in The City," said Jaci Fong, The City's purchaser. "The question we are trying to answer is, 'Can we purchase economically and competitively and support local manufacturing?' We are hoping to have the opportunity to prove we can."

The effort will cost $25,000 and could be completed by the end of the year, with the goal of purchasing actual garments beginning next year.

The proposal — which is part of Mayor Ed Lee's budget that's pending approval before the Board of Supervisors — could help the mayor on at least three political fronts. In addition to addressing worker conditions, the effort could boost local hiring and buoy the local manufacturing industry, which Lee has made one of his priorities.

The effort is being launched following a conversation about the idea last year with SFMade, a nonprofit launched in 2010 to organize, promote and grow The City's manufacturing industry. In a 2012 report, the organization said the industry is showing growth and employs more than 3,200 people, with a majority living within city limits.

"Garment manufacturing in San Francisco now employs hundreds of people — largely Chinese and other Asian immigrants — across several dozen sewing factories," according to the report.

Since San Francisco adopted the Sweatfree Contracting Ordinance in 2005, it has proven challenging to enforce. In 2007, it was amended to create leeway for compliance by allowing The City to evaluate bids for contracts based on a company's degree of compliance with the provisions, such as listing their subcontractors and allowing site investigations.

The ordinance applies to contracts for the purchase of goods and garments, valued in the millions of dollars annually. To investigate possible offenders, The City partnered with the Worker Rights Consortium, beginning in 2008 with a $100,000 two-year agreement. There are currently 13 cities partnering with the group, including Berkeley; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and Los Angeles.

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