Breaking a sweat

What's taking San Francisco so long to implement its anti-sweat shop law?

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.

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