Breaking a sweat

Pub date August 29, 2007
WriterG.W. Schulz


When San Francisco took the national lead in eschewing consumer products made by workers forced to endure unsavory working conditions, Mayor Gavin Newsom positioned himself front and center on the issue.

Along with Sup. Tom Ammiano, Newsom coauthored the nation’s toughest municipal ordinance on the matter, requiring that the city and county of San Francisco purchase garments for its firefighters, police officers, Muni drivers, and others from manufacturers that can prove they don’t subcontract with sweatshops or mistreat workers themselves.

Putting the widely touted plan into action was another matter. Two years later, some appointees to the city’s newly formed Sweatfree Procurement Advisory Group, including former state senator Tom Hayden, say San Francisco is already failing to recognize its own commitment to human rights.

Several contractors who are set to provide the city with everything from bulletproof vests to uniforms for the Sheriff’s Department have received exemptions from the law, and nearly all of them have contracts lasting from three to five years — meaning it could be the next decade before the law has much impact.

The contracts in question total $7.2 million in value, according to city records.

"The waivers have no conditions attached," Hayden wrote in a recent letter to the mayor. "They give permission to continue avoiding compliance for several years…. We know from the city’s own staff that one supplier, Galls, produces in Colombia, a human-rights violator where scores of union leaders have been assassinated."

Hayden added in a phone interview that members of the advisory group have offered solutions to the city’s slow pace, but officials haven’t reacted. He met with American Apparel CEO Marty Bailey last month, and Bailey expressed interest in bidding on the city contracts, Hayden said, but the city hasn’t followed up with a meeting or conference call. Nor has it explored the option of joining contracts with "sweat-free" companies doing business with Los Angeles, Hayden contended.

"I’ve wondered if the procurement officials in San Francisco were being creative enough in looking for suppliers," Hayden said, "or whether they were looking at the same old handful of suppliers as if those people would change their ways."

Dozens of cities have such laws in place, but few have serious enforcement mechanisms. San Francisco was supposed to distinguish its ordinance in part by activating an agreement with the nonprofit enforcement body Workers Rights Consortium, which should already be inspecting manufacturing plants independently to ensure fair wages, benefits, and safety standards.

But enforcement, it turns out, is exactly where San Francisco’s law has so far fallen flat on it face, critics from the advisory group say. The group’s chair, Valerie Orth, an organizer for Global Exchange, said city bureaucrats promised to grant only short-term contracts until the law’s complex requirements were logistically workable.

Companies doing business with the city are often merely part of a supply chain that is coordinated with manufacturers abroad, so inspectors must track the conduct of subcontractors too.

The city, however, still doesn’t know the locations of some of the manufacturing plants where uniforms for sheriff’s deputies, meter enforcers, and many others are produced, Orth said, and with so many suppliers potentially receiving waivers, there’s no way to tell if, for instance, workers are getting a minimum wage.

Some businesses did provide info to the city on what outfits they subcontract with, but in one case the subcontractor, Fechheimer Brothers Co., didn’t comply with the law’s wage requirements, city records show.

According to Fechheimer’s Web site, the company has "manufacturing partners" in Central and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia that "complement our three union plants in the United States." Fechheimer is participating in a three-year contract to provide uniforms to the city’s fire department.

"We’ve been trying to implement this law since 2005," Orth told the Guardian. "They’ve had time to try and figure out the kinks."

Orth said an executive from Fechheimer attended a recent advisory group meeting and complained that disclosing the location of manufacturing plants abroad would make the firm less competitive.

Newsom’s government affairs director, Wade Crowfoot, was unhappy when he discovered last week that Hayden and Orth had distributed a news release outlining their complaints. When we contacted the mayor’s media flak, Nathan Ballard, with questions, he responded only with an exasperated letter that Crowfoot had sent to the duo.

"Far from the doom-and-gloom portrait painted by the press release, the city remains committed to advancing the most aggressive anti-sweatshop law in the country," Crowfoot wrote. "While it may be frustrating to implement this incrementally, our experience with other groundbreaking legislation such as requiring domestic partner benefits suggests that remaining focused on removing the barriers to implementation — and working together to do so — is the only way to make this law fully operative."

Crowfoot added that the city wants to modify the law to reward contract bidders who are mostly compliant, but Orth and Hayden still worry that the city is simply prioritizing suppliers who are the least costly. According to Orth, "Once [contractors] figure out how they can get out of complying with the law in a city like San Francisco … they can easily get out of complying with laws in other cities."