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Columbia Journal logoVolume Nine, Number Three    May 2004    www.columbiajournal.ca

    Ethical Purchasing Victory at City Hall

    Tom Sandborn

    It was a quiet moment at the end of a long day of ordinary city business, but the decision taken in that moment was historic, and will have big implications for the lives of workers around the world. On April 6, 2004, Vancouver City Council voted unanimously to create an ethical purchasing policy for the city. The resolution, moved by Councilor Tim Louis and seconded by Raymond Louie, won the unified support of a Cope caucus that has been beset in the last few months with high profile internal divisions, and also garnered yes votes from the two opposition NPA councilors.

    Page 3 cartoonThe policy is due to be in effect by the end of the calendar year. It will apply to all goods purchased by the city (such as uniforms for city workers and coffee to be served in city venues) and will require city  suppliers to reveal the locations of all contractors and subcontractors involved in their supply chains, and for this information to become public knowledge,  thus making it more  possible to identify producers who are abusing their workers. The policy will require that suppliers who want to do business with the city must explicitly guarantee that their products are not created under conditions prohibited by International Labour Organization standards and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, (for example, such conditions as  child labour, forced labour, discrimination against women workers, sexual exploitation and union busting.)  

    Vancouver is not alone in adopting ethical purchasing rules. The state of Maine now imposes anti-sweatshop, ethical purchasing rules to all its procurement, and in Canada, universities such as Dalhousie in Nova Scotia and Guelph in Ontario have adopted such policies, while cities from Bathurst in the Maritimes to Ladysmith on the Island have all passed ethical purchasing resolutions. Around the world, anti-sweatshop activists have succeeded in winning ethical purchasing resolutions from hundreds of schools and city governments, resolutions that are meant to increase the pressure for reform on the world apparel industry and other supply chains that are rife with sweatshop abuses.  ( Full disclosure: I have been involved in local anti-sweatshop organizing for several years, including some involvement in the lobby effort at Vancouver City Hall, so there can be no question of journalistic objectivity here. On this matter I am cheerfully partisan.)

    The success at Vancouver City Hall this April is a tribute to the practical power of solidarity and relentlessness. For close to two years now, the BC Ethical Purchasing Group (a coalition that includes student groups at UBC, Simon Fraser and Cap College, as well as Oxfam Canada, the CLC and local labour councils and the Maquila Solidarity Network ) has been actively lobbying Vancouver and other local bodies to adopt  anti-sweatshop initiatives such as ethical purchasing. This work builds on years of earlier public education on sweatshop issues conducted  by the local Oxfam Canada offices under the leadership of Oxfam staffer Miriam Palacios.

    Local activists have met with political leadership and senior staff members at SFU (where the Board of Governors has created a committee that includes student and union representation to report on the issue) at UBC, at Vancouver School Board and Parks Board and at Burnaby City Hall. Vancouver’s decisions to pass an ethical purchasing resolution, and to set a firm deadline for having a policy in place represent the first concrete victories for Lower Mainland anti sweatshop activism; key activists are now optimistic that more such resolutions may be coming soon from some of the  other local bodies currently being lobbied.
    Ethical purchasing, of course, is only one tactic in the fight against sweatshops. In the end, the most important battles will be fought by workers themselves as they create independent unions and bargain with their employers for better conditions. However, ethical purchasing policies in first world countries can do much to level the playing field in the contest between workers and international business, and, by doing so, make worker victories more likely. The City of Vancouver has taken a historic step by this April 6 resolution. Justice for sweatshop workers is one small step closer now, and the city has taken an important stand on the right side of this issue.

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