Monday, December 14, 2009

Portland (OR) celebrates its progress toward ‘sweat-free’ procurement

“When we put on our uniforms and wear city-supplied hats and T-shirts, we need to be assured these products are not produced under sweatshop conditions.” That’s what Richard Beetle, business manager of the Laborers local union, said when the city council of Portland, Oregon, last year decided that the city would purchase only uniforms and other apparel that are “sweat-free.”

This Friday afternoon, November 18, Portland marks that breakthrough by holding an after-work party in City Hall. Mayor Sam Adams will be there to help celebrate the success of the “SweatFree Procurement Policy” he sponsored while he was a city commissioner. A former garment worker, Gloria Gonzalez, will describe her years in sweatshops and the plight of millions of women and girls still working in them.

City Hall will be adorned with profiles of garment workers around the world painted by Janet Essley. The Essley painting above, of a garment worker in Haiti, is one of the 23 in a traveling exhibit that gives “a human face to the workers behind the uniforms of our police, firefighters, and other public employees.”

The city now spends about $20,000,000 a year on uniforms, almost all made in “sweatfree” workplaces. Under the policy adopted on October 15 last year, the city plans to expand sweat-free procurement to other products, such as computers.

Portland isn’t pursuing this policy alone. It belongs to “SweatFree Communities,” a network of 39 cities, 15 counties, eight states, and more than 100 public school districts, all dedicated to ending the use of taxpayer dollars in global sweatshops and in domestic work places with substandard work places.

Portland has also joined a SweatFree Communities program, the national SweatFree Purchasing Consortium, a pioneering effort seeking to fill a vacuum on the production side.

At present there is a huge shortage of factories in the world that can be counted on to deliver sweat-free goods. With the purchasing power inherent in a much-enlarged group, the Consortium would represent enough demand to build a large set of reliable sweat-free suppliers.

The goal, therefore, is not only negative – to end public procurement from sweatshops -- but also positive: to establish incentives toward the creation of alternative sources.

Taking the “sweat” out of the world’s sweatshops will require a combination of governmental and nongovernmental levers. Public procurement with a conscience is one of them.

(Interested in displaying the Essley garment worker paintings in your community? Check the art section at

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