First, a generator in the textile mill exploded. Then a boiler blew. Soon the whole three-story sweatshop was ablaze. The old building had poor fire-fighting equipment and no emergency exits. Many of the doors, following standard procedures, were locked to keep employees inside. Press accounts vary wildly, but at least 85 people—many of them teenage girls—burned to death and another 150 were injured.
While sounding a lot like the notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York (which killed 146 mostly female workers), this disaster actually occurred a bit more recently—Feb. 24, 2006, in the KTS Textile Industries factory in Chittagong, Bangladesh. According to labor union reports, the workers were apparently making underwear for shipment to U.S. correctional institutions.
For too long, national, state and local governments have been buying clothes from third world sweatshops. The State of Hawai‘i has been no different, buying clothes and uniforms from companies like Jansport, Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Gildan which are known to pay factory workers a few dollars a day as they work in hazardous sweatshops (for more on this see our Dec. 30, 2004 story “Dirty Clothes: Must the County do business with sweatshops?”).
So far, just six states—California, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania—prohibit government agencies from buying from sweatshops. At long last, there’s a move in the state Legislature to make Hawai‘i the seventh state. The bill SB 2409, sponsored by state Senator Gary Hooser (D, Kauai, Ni‘ihau) and carrying the not-very glamorous title “Relating to Public Procurement,” bans state and county agencies from doing business with companies that use sweatshops.
“The impetus came from Representative Roy Takumi [D, Pearl City],” Hooser said. “We need to ensure that the buying decisions we make as a state are from sources that have good labor policies.”
There are four main parts to the bill. Foremost, the bill establishes a “sweatfree public procurement policy and code of conduct” which requires that the state only deal with vendors who pay above-poverty wages, don’t discriminate, allow workers the right to assemble and bargain collectively and provide safe working conditions, among other requirements. The bill also requires all potential vendors to tell state officials where their factories are located and the wages they pay their workers.
In addition, SB 2409 asks Hawai‘i officials to work with their counterparts in other states in investigating labor problems in the vendors and monitor their factories. And lastly, the bill sets up a “Sweatfree advisory group” made up of labor activists, union officials and agency representatives who will monitor state procurement policies and actions.
Anti-sweatshop activists are thrilled with the bill.
“From my perspective, SB 2409 is the best piece of sweatfree procurement legislation proposed in any state or locality thus far,” Bjorn Claeson, Executive Director of SweatFree Communities, said in testimony submitted to the state Senate Committee on Tourism and Government Operations on Jan. 29. “By ensuring that tax dollars do not subsidize profiteering from human rights abuses, SB 2409 will not just benefit sweatshop workers; it will also help to create a more stable and sustainable business environment.”
But state procurement agencies aren’t so pleased. Officials from the Department of Accounting and General Services and the State Procurement Office have asked the state Senate to reject SB 2409.
“The State has no jurisdiction over foreign manufacturers of apparel, garments, accessories, equipment, materials, and supplies,” state Comptroller Russ K. Saito told the Senate Committee on Tourism and Government Operations.
This is nonsense. The State of Hawai‘i, as a customer, has buying power. We can pick and choose where to buy clothing and uniforms. Yes, SB 2409 will require state officials like Saito to do a little more work researching potential vendors and questioning their labor practices, but I doubt it’s anything he and his staff can’t handle.
In any case, things are looking good for the bill. On Feb. 5 it passed out of the Tourism and Government Operations committee “with amendments” and now faces a full Senate vote. MTW