How Inslee can make a difference on sweatshops

Do your tax dollars go to support sweatshop labor in other countries?  Do you know where your clothes are made?  Are the workers who make your goods safe at work?  

These questions rattled around Seattle and Olympia recently when Kalpona Akter and Sumi Abedin stopped in Washington as part of a ten-city “End Death Traps” tour. Akter is Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and Abedin is a survivor of the Tazreen Garments factory fire in November 2012. More than 113 people died at Tazreen — manufacturing clothes for Western corporations including Walmart, The Gap and H&M. 

As part of the tour, I moderated a panel with Abedin and Akter at the University of Washington to a packed house. Abedin described how managers violated building safety procedures — a regular practice — and kept doors and windows locked because they were afraid workers might steal garments. 

When the workers smelled smoke, they were told it was a false alarm and sent back to work. Abedin jumped out of a ventilation duct and ended up surviving with a broken arm and leg. She jumped so that her parents would be able to find her body, not because she expected to survive.

Akter, who began working in a garment factory herself at the age of 12, said the goals of the tour were three-fold: to educate U.S. consumers about the 700 deaths at factories in Bangladesh over the past six years, to demand compensation for the killed and injured from U.S. corporations like Walmart and to push those corporations to sign a legally-binding agreement around fire and building safety.

That very night, another unreal scene was unfolding across the ocean. In Savar, Bangladesh, a seven-story garment manufacturing factory collapsed, killing more than 450 people, severely injuring hundreds more, with hundreds still missing in the concrete rubble.  

In a rapidly globalizing world, consumers are more and more disconnected from the supply chains that bring them stuff. It’s hard to know where things are made — and few of us ever consider the massive government purchasing machinery that uses our tax dollars to buy goods made under a variety of conditions.  

Kristen Beifus believes that needs to change: by passing a sweat free procurement policy for Washington state. Beifus, Executive Director of the Washington Fair Trade Coalition, has been working for the past two years to design and pass such a policy. She’s been joined by the UW chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), State Senator Steve Conway, Representative Jeannie Darneille and officials at the Department of Enterprise Services (DES), which does all the buying for the state. 

So far, nine states, 40 cities and 15 counties have passed similar policies — including Seattle. In 2010, with leadership from city procurement officials as well as Councilmembers Nick Licata and Tom Rasmussen, Seattle passed a sweat free policy and later joined the Sweat Free Procurement Consortium, a national entity that works to enforce and monitor policies. 

The state policy would be similar to Seattle’s, with three components: a code of conduct, a requirement that state vendors are able to explain where each piece of a certain product is made and an option for the state to join the Sweat Free Purchasing Consortium. Vendors who don’t know all the pieces of their supply chain would be required to research specific locations and find information. It would also allow for spot checks of certain factories, like the Tazreen Garments factory or the Savar factory, if products were being manufactured there. 

Beifus said that procurement officials at DES have been very supportive, but things have stalled somewhat recently, partly due to an open position as Director of DES that happened with the change in Governor. “We’re definitely looking to Governor Inslee to show leadership by appointing someone to lead the department who shares these values and will get the policy back on track,” Beifus said. 

Beifus, Conway and others brought Abedin and Akter to Olympia to remind people about why the policy is so essential and urgent. “The scale of the global sweatshop industry is enormous —all producing for European and U.S. brands. As consumers, we have power to demand a different way of doing business and connecting the struggles and values across all of our countries.”

Walmart is one of the links across the ocean. After the Savar collapse, two large companies from Britain and Canada stepped up and said they would pay compensation to those killed and injured, as well as look at policies around fire and building safety. Walmart has yet to do either for the Tazreen fire.

OurWalmart, a group of Walmart workers seeking to improve working conditions and wages for Walmart workers here in the U.S., participated in the forum with Abedin and Akter and later in a joint action at the Renton Walmart. Many were deeply moved and vowed to continue connecting worker rights issues across borders.

“I have to say I was not at all proud of Walmart that day when I heard them speak,” Pat Scott, an OurWalmart member told me later. “You see it on TV, but it just doesn’t hit home. You don’t realize what kind of conditions they are working under. I just cried and cried listening to them.”

Scott has worked for Walmart for 14 years. She earns $14.99/hour as a cashier. “That may seem like a lot,” she said, “but I’m a single mom. I’ve got my daughter and grandchild living with me and we barely eke it out each month. These corporations are making billions of dollars at the expense of those Bangladeshi women and workers right here. It doesn’t need to be that way.”  

Beifus says that ultimately, our values as a state tie all these issues together. “We value respect for workers here. We need to carry those values through in terms of who does business here — in our communities and with the state. This procurement policy would put our values up front and make sure we support ethical corporations.”  

Akter and Abedin’s presence and the Savar factory collapse were a stark reminder of how closely connected we are in this globalizing world — and of the incredibly high costs of low prices. 

“All of us as workers need something to stand on, someone behind us, whether in Bangladesh or here in the U.S.,” said Scott. “I joined OurWalmart to make it better so I could be proud of where I worked. We’ll just keep linking our causes and putting what’s happening everywhere in the world in the faces of these corporations to make them accountable. Yes, we will.”

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