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Workers' rights matter in city

My View • Portland takes important step with 'sweatfree' policy

Nearly 100 years ago, on March 25, 1911, a fire started at one of New York City's nonunion sweatshops - the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Because of the fire hazards throughout the building, the fire spread rapidly and within minutes engulfed the entire upper floors.

A total of 146 workers died - almost all of them female immigrants, some as young as 15.

Out of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy grew a union of women who fought for improved working conditions and fair wages in factories. It also fueled the movement to create the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, which helped win legislation for improved factory safety standards.

In fact, many of the fire safety codes developed then are the basis for the fire safety codes used here in Portland today.

Unfortunately, our global economy has run us full circle, right back to 1911.

Last year, a fire ripped through a factory in Bangladesh and claimed the lives of 86 workers. One of the factory's major customers was Utah-based Leslee Scott Inc. (which merged with Bob Barker Co. Inc. in 2006), a company that produces uniforms, underwear and textiles for cities and states across the U.S.

Corporate customers in this country, like Bob Barker Co. Inc., as well as the cities that purchase from them, have a moral obligation to look beyond cheap goods to confront the real human atrocities behind them.

For Portland, a city that values human rights and sustainability, it is critical that we know the conditions in the factories where our clothing and goods are made.

Last week, city commissioners voted on a 'sweatfree' resolution, taking the first step to ensure that our tax dollars are not going to sweatshop-made uniforms or other textiles, and to ending sweatshop conditions around the world - joining the states of Maine, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as the cities of San Francisco; Los Angeles; Madison, Wis.; and Providence, R.I., in this effort.

Essentially, the resolution sets in motion a process to create the City of Portland Sweatshop Free Procurement policy for uniforms and clothing purchases, to be fully implemented in 2008.If the resolution is taken seriously by our commissioners and implemented comprehensively, it will empower an independent committee, free from industry interests, to draft a policy prohibiting the procurement of goods made in sweatshops.

Such a policy also will require that any company doing business with the city of Portland disclose the names of their factories, and will earmark funding for an independent monitoring consortium that can investigate those factories and protect against unsafe working conditions.

As a firefighter for the city of Portland, I took an oath to protect citizens from fires and disasters. When I put my uniform on in the morning and start my tour of duty, I want to be assured that my pants and shirt were not made under unsafe working conditions. I want to know that the company that makes the uniform I wear with pride supports the same values the firefighters union does, for fair wages and decent working conditions.

In practical terms, three things will change for Portland's workplaces under the final sweatfree policy. First, the final policy will protect local businesses with fair labor practices whose competitive ability to win Portland contracts has been undermined by businesses with cheap labor costs and lax environmental standards.

Second, workers will reap real benefits from employers, which are required to adhere to International Labor Organization standards. And third, all uniformed city employees, like myself, will be assured that we can wear our uniforms with pride, knowing the workers who produced them were given dignity, respect and a workplace free of exploitation.

Fundamentally, the sweatfree resolution is a first step in guaranteeing that Portland's purchasing power is used to set a higher standard for human rights. Workers and our city's taxpayers deserve nothing less.

Ed Hall has been a member of the Portland Fire Bureau for 25 years. He is vice president of Portland Firefighters Association Local 43.