Students and citizens of the City of Ithaca have come together to unanimously pass the Sweatshop Free Initiative, a campaign to fight inhumane working conditions, backed by Cornell University’s Organization for Labor Action.
Effective Jan. 1 2012, the city will take steps to ensure that all city purchases of apparel and textiles totalling more than $1,000 are confirmed to be “sweatshop-free.”
On Aug. 31, the city became a member of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium, a third-party organization that will identify whether the factories Ithaca receives goods from are meeting the code of conduct set by the City of Ithaca.
Eddie Rooker, a member of the Common Council 4th Ward, submitted the proposal to the committee in 2008 and worked alongside COLA to pass the initiative.
“The initiative shows our values as a city,” he said, “We’re committed to worker’s rights around the world, not just in our community. It allows us to join cities across the country to actually make some changes.”
Bjorn Claeson, executive director of the consortium, said the group was founded in May and stems from Sweat Free Communities, a grassroots organization that aims to improve working conditions. The organization claims it will oversee working conditions in factories to ensure labor standards are kept and working conditions are humane. There are now nine states, 40 cities, 15 countries and 118 school districts that have adopted sweat-free policies, Claeson said.
The consortium will carry out inspections of factories and report any violations. It’s then the city’s decision whether to continue purchasing goods from that factory, Claeson said.
Rooker said places that may be affected are locations such as the fire department and police station where mass amounts of city uniforms are purchased.
Depending on the severity of the violation, Claeson said, it’s best not to immediately sever ties with a factory, for the sake of the workers.
“There should be a reasonable amount of time for the factories to come into compliance with the code of conduct,” Claeson said. “Otherwise, it can be counter productive for the workers, so instead we try to use our purchasing leverage to complete our goals.”
Alex Bores, a member of COLA, said the initiative began in fall 2008 after Cornell fired back at a controversial case which emerged with Russell Athletic, a sporting goods company.
According to United Students Against Sweatshops, a grassroots student organization fighting against sweatshops, about 110 universities, including Cornell, terminated their licensing contracts with Russell when the company closed its Honduras factory after workers unionized. The codes of conduct for universities that had contracts with Russell guaranteed workers’ freedom of association.
Russell responded by reopening the factory, rehiring the workers and signing a union neutrality agreement for all of the factories.
A similar issue arose in spring 2010 when it became public that two Nike subcontractors closed their factories without paying mandated severance to workers when, according to USAS, the company owed the factories about $2 million and 1,800 people were laid off with little means to support their families.
Three weeks after Cornell cut its licensing contract with Nike, the company agreed to pay $1.54 million for a “worker relief fund.” Nike also agreed to give the factories health care and a training program for a full year, citing the financial difficulties countries like Honduras face when trying to enforce labor laws.
Bores said ensuring Ithaca is sweat-free is an important issue for the community to focus on.
“The initiative is necessary in order for the City of Ithaca to be upholding the values of the city by making sure that workers aren’t exploited,” he said.
With the new partnership, the consortium and the city also aim to help locals understand the origin of products and apparel. From there, the city can make decisions on what to do with the information.
“The issue is that when people buy clothing, they don’t know where it’s coming from,” Bores said. “This allows companies to abuse workers’ rights. Now, as a member of the consortium, Ithaca will be educated in the matter and able to make pertinent decisions based on the beliefs of the community.”
Bores said upholding city values is important for the citizens of Ithaca, but the end goal is to see that happen while maintaining jobs in underdeveloped countries. The initiative is not just a project for the Ithaca community, but also across the world, he said.
“The goal is to see these factories improve working conditions and reach a point where workers are paid a living wage in factories that respect their right to organize,” Bores said.