Berkeley Urged to Adopt Sweat-Free Ordinance

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday April 07, 2009 - 03:52:00 PM

Community leaders, labor rights activists and garment workers from Central America urged Berkeley city officials to pass a sweatshop-free ordinance at a Tuesday press conference at Old City Hall. 

City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said that he would be co-sponsoring, along with councilmembers Max Anderson and Jesse Arreguin, a sweatshop-free ordinance at the April 21 City Council meeting. 

The event was part of a week-long West Coast tour where human rights and labor organizations called on cities to join and support the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium, which would end tax dollar support for sweatshop abuses and establish ethical standards for U.S. businesses. 

Although 39 cities in the country, including San Francisco, have adopted sweatshop-free ordinances, Berkeley has yet to pass one despite joining the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium in July 2007. 

The city’s Peace and Justice Commission collaborated with numerous city officials and the Commission on Labor over the past three years to write an ordinance which was rejected by the City Council a year ago. 

“Sadly, Berkeley is way behind on this issue than other cities,” Worthington said at the press conference. “It’s long overdue for the City of Berkeley to put our money where our mouths are.” 

He said that although the ordinance is scheduled to appear before the council in three weeks, it still may not pass. 

“We as city officials have a moral responsibility to make sure that the goods that we are purchasing with taxpayer dollars do not support unfair labor practices,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. “Doing business with companies that engage in sweatshop practices does not reflect the values of the citizens of Berkeley.” 

Elizabeth Gutierrez spoke about her experience working under unjust labor conditions at a Honduras factory. 

“Why is it that workers are paid only 10 cents when the products are sold for $25 or $35?” she asked. “Workers work long days but don’t have any right to organize. We have problems with our lungs and our backs.” 

Describing her 12-hour work days and unbearable daily production goals, Gutierrez said she hoped “cities would step up to support good jobs.” 

Rapfael Izirarry, who works for Propper International in Puerto Rico, which contracts with the United States for military uniforms, said he and fellow employees were organizing to improve conditions in their factory. He said sweat-free policies adopted by cities would protect the rights of workers by improving salaries and benefits. 

Berkeley’s proposed ordinance seeks to ensure that garments and other equipment, materials, supplies and services “procured by the City of Berkeley, its agencies or its employees through contracts, purchase orders or voucher programs, be produced in workplaces free of sweatshop conditions.” 

“To those who contend that the ordinance is but a symbolic resolution, we tell them that the workers who just spoke are not symbols, they are real people, and this is real life,” said Labor Commissioner Igor Tregub, a longtime advocate for the ordinance. 

“The intent of this ordinance is not to close down factories but to help vendors with which the city does business to take steps to get into compliance, and to award contracts to the most responsible but not necessarily the lowest bidder.”