February 2013 Issue
January 31, 2013

New York must purchase responsibly

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Labor organizer Yannick Etienne of Haiti will speak at one of the events.

Labor organizer Yannick Etienne of Haiti
will speak at one of the events.

The state of New York spends $43 million a year on apparel, including textiles, footwear, flags and uniforms for cops and convicts — some of it sewn by people working in harsh conditions where owners profit and workers suffer.

The Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State is staging a Sweatfree New York week of action Feb. 3-9 to let communities know that New York is failing in its responsibility to purchase goods made by people in healthy, safe working conditions.

"States are responsible for their supply chain," said Sara Niccoli, executive director of the statewide coalition.

A report from the International Labor Rights Forum's Sweatfree Communities Campaign revealed that factories supplying the state of New York's apparel contracts for uniforms and T-shirts had sweatshop-like conditions: child labor, mandated pregnancy testing, mandated unpaid overtime and dangerous working conditions.

Although sweatfree advocates were encouraged when New York joined the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium in 2009, the state has still failed to pass a meaningful sweatfree Code of Conduct and continues to purchase some of its apparel from sweatshops, Niccoli said.

"Our tax dollars represent significant purchasing power and should be used to support fair wages and humane conditions, not to subsidize sweatshops."

During Sweatfree New York week, speakers will travel throughout the state — stopping in Syracuse, New York City, Ithaca, Rochester, Buffalo, and Albany — to discuss their experiences working for companies like Gildan Activewear, a Montreal-based apparel company that supplies government entities, in addition to Adidas and Walmart.

Other events include documentary screenings, interfaith worker vigils and potluck dinners. In New York City, a professor will speak on "ethical fashion" right before the city's huge fashion week extravaganza. For specifics on each city, go to www. labor-religion.org.

A press conference is scheduled for 11:30 a.m., Friday, Feb. 9, at the governor's mansion. Coalition members will present signatures in favor of a mandate for New York to purchase sweatfree apparel.

The November 2012 Bangladeshi factory fire that killed more than 100 workers made it painfully clear changes need to be made in the garment industry.

"We as consumers must hold companies responsible for knowing where their clothes are made," said Niccoli. "Companies make high profits from cheap labor and hazardous conditions; it's unacceptable of them to claim ignorance for the same conditions from which they profit.

"Companies are competing in the race to the bottom to see who can pay their workers the least. We must say: 'This is not moral. Workers should not have to die for you to make a profit.'"
Pennsylvania and Maine have already enacted sweatfree purchasing laws.

The New York coalition has been successful in getting schools to sign on to the Sweatfree Schools campaign, pledging to buy school apparel made in sweatfree conditions. The state has even more purchasing power, and is in a position to force change, said Joy Perkett, faith organizer and campaign coordinator for the state Labor-Religion Coalition.