Group tells Vt.: No sweat

Posted

Monday, July 7
BRATTLEBORO -- Vermont is getting some of its state-issued apparel from international sweatshops and an anti-sweatshop group is asking the state to pressure the companies to change their practices.

Rocky Brand Inc. and The Bob Barker Company, two manufacturers that hold current contracts with the state, have done business with factories in China and Bangladesh that have been cited for severe human and labor rights violations, according to a report issued last week by SweatFree Communities.

Gov. Jim Douglas signed a bill in Brattleboro earlier this year that made Vermont the seventh state in the country with anti-sweatshop legislation after a group of students from Brattleboro Union High School testified in Montpelier on the issue.

Vermont's law directs the Department of Buildings and General Services to ensure that all of the uniforms and apparel the state purchases is manufactured without sweatshop labor after the current contract expires.

And while state officials say they are preparing to contact each vendor as those contracts come up, a SweatFree Communities spokeswoman said Vermont should join other states now to pressure the companies to stop doing business with the overseas sweatshops.

"We are asking the state to follow through on their commitment, and to coordinate with other states, to start an immediate investigation into the purchasing policies of these companies," said SweatFree Communities national organizer Liana Foxvog. "We appreciate what Vermont has done so far and we are asking them to implement the law as soon as possible."

Foxvog said that while Vermont is leading the way by enacting anti-sweatshop legislation, the state should join the Sweatfree Consortium, a group of state and local governments that are coming together to fund workplace monitoring and coordinate enforcement of sweat free purchasing policies.

Both of the companies working with Vermont that were mentioned in the report issued press releases Tuesday claiming that they do internal monitoring of work place conditions, but Foxvog said the report's authors met with workers in the factories who told very different stories.

A public relations firm handling Rocky Brands, said the company is no longer working with the Chinese factory mentioned in the report and said the company was "committed to supporting human rights worldwide. If a facility declines to work with us to make the changes we require then we will take our business elsewhere. We do not tolerate violations of our code of conduct," the company stated in a press release.

Rocky Brands sells safety shoes to Vermont for its state workers.

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And Robert Barker, president of the Bob Barker Company, said "We do not condone, and have never been involved with, any violation of labor laws, directly of indirectly, to our knowledge. We follow specific measures to ensure our suppliers are in compliance with labor laws throughout the world."

The Barker Company sells inmate sneakers to Vermont for its prison population.

SweatFree Communities interviewed workers from 12 factories in nine countries that produce apparel for eight uniform companies in the United States.

Workers that do business with the Bob Barker Company said in the report that the starting salary at the factory was $6 per month and employees were forced to drink from dirty toilets because there is not adequate drinking water available.

And Rocky Shoes, according to the report, does business with suppliers in China that refuse to pay its workers overtime.

In the report Barker is quoted as saying his company hires third parties to monitor working conditions, but Foxvog said the workers who take part in those monitors are often forced to support the practices.

She said the report's authors interviewed workers at the factories who were promised anonymity and she stood behind all of the allegations in the report.

Gerry Myers, Vermont's commissioner of the Department of Building and General Services, said Tuesday that he had not had the time to read all of the report, but said the information would be used as the state begins to renew its contracts with the companies mentioned in the report.

The law that Douglas signed at BUHS in April says the state has to certify that all of its vendors, and all of their suppliers, are following labor laws or risk losing business.

"We fully intend to work with our suppliers to meet the intent of the statute," Myers said. "This report gives us background we might not otherwise be able to get and we will take it at face value and leave it up to the contractor to disprove. This is all a work in progress."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.


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