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Sweatshop pact protects jobs, kids

Hill, of Blacksburg, is retired from the University of Maine's Department of Chemical Engineering.

We know that American manufacturing jobs have been going overseas. Jobs making clothing and textiles are among those vanishing from the United States. Making matters worse, the jobs going to China, Vietnam, El Salvador and other nations, are not helping to pull abjectly poor people in those countries out of poverty. Rather, the workers often receive wages that barely sustain life.

Often, children or very young women are exploited in sweatshop conditions for very long hours with no health and safety provisions and often with constant harassment to work faster and faster. Even a quick trip to a filthy restroom is a luxury granted only twice in a very long day. Workers at those jobs do protest, but at the risk of being fired and blacklisted. They keep saying, "We want jobs, but we want jobs with dignity."

How can we help sweatshop workers? First remember that every state buys clothing, such as uniforms, as well as many other products. Nationwide, the products and services purchased by cities and states combined are worth about $400 billion a year. Four hundred billion dollars is about $115 billion more than our country spends on imports from China, or $150 billion more than total Wal-Mart sales in 2005. That $400 billion dollars in purchases represents power.

Let's use that combined buying power to support human rights and insist that companies abide by fair labor standards -- use our purchasing power to support the efforts of sweatshop workers struggling for a better life.

Using sweatshop labor allows a company to underbid responsible contractors. But Maine in 2001, and later about five other states, passed legislation for "sweatfree procurement." These states adopted policies that the companies they do business with should not buy from companies that rely on sweatshop labor.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci has taken a further important step. In a Feb. 28 letter to Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, Baldacci proposed a Governors' Coalition for Sweatfree Procurement. Such a collaboration of governors would greatly increase the power of sweatfree procurement. See sweatfree.org/governorscoalition.

So-called "free" trade -- different from fair trade -- has major impacts on workers in our nation, including those in Virginia. The U.S. trade deficit translated into a loss of 20,000 jobs in Virginia in 2005 (and a total loss of more than 160,000 jobs since 1993). Setting basic standards for workers around the world would protect American -- including Virginian -- workers, helping to avoid a worldwide race to the bottom in wages and health and safety standards.

"Race to the bottom" is not just a figure of speech. Over the past decade, conditions in the world's garment manufacturing establishments, for example, have not improved and may indeed be worse. This is happening as Wal-Mart and other big buyers relentlessly continue to drive down the prices they pay for products. Now, even a very poor country such as El Salvador cannot compete with the bare-bone wages paid in some Asian countries.

Decent standards would also ease immigration pressure into the U.S. Well-treated workers are less likely to cross borders in search of something better. And here in Virginia, manufacturers could begin to become more competitive. In other words, addressing root causes helps us all.

We can join in this effort. Ask Kaine to sign on to the Governor's Coalition for Sweatfree Procurement and to use Virginia's procurement as a positive tool to address the serious problem of unregulated sweatshops around the world. Contact Kaine at 804-786-2211; through e-mail by going to governor.virginia.gov/abouttheGovernor/contactGovernor.cfm, or write Office of the Governor, 1111 East Broad Street, Richmond, Va. 23219.