Government moves slow on no-sweat policy

By  Michael Swan, The Catholic Register
  • January 17, 2007
The federal government can't say when Canadians will get to know whether the prison uniforms it buys are sewn by prison labourers in Myanmar, or whether Canadian army boots are manufactured using child labour.

"We haven't put too much stock in getting things done at the federal level, at the moment," said Maquila Solidarity Network researcher and lobbyist Kevin Thomas.

"Our experience with trying to get them to move on any of these corporate social responsibility issues has been pretty poor."

The federal government did participate in writing a report on ethical purchasing policies in 2005. The previously secret Ethical Procurement Framework report by the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Ethical Procurement Workgroup was obtained by The Catholic Register. The report discusses the possibility that governments purchase clothing and other supplies only from suppliers who will share the names and addresses of factories. It also recommends that bidders on government contracts be required to put their signatures to  guarantees of International Labour Organization standards for factory workers.

The report has been kept away from the public since it was printed Aug. 22, 2005, and it took an access to information request from the church and labour-sponsored Maquila Solidarity Network to bring it to light.

The government of Manitoba followed up on the public servants' report by passing a no-sweat purchasing policy for apparel suppliers in November.

Public Works and Government Services Canada says it is still working on the issue.

"We are currently working at developing a procurement code of conduct and will soon be consulting the industry to this effect," said Public Works spokesman Pierre Manoni. "It would be premature to comment further pending the outcome of the consultations."

If there are any consultations going on, it's news to Thomas, who works on the issue full time.

"It would be great to see a broader consultation. We have been through that kind of thing before with Industry Canada," Thomas said.

The trouble with past consultations has been that the federal government won't move without a consensus in which labour, non-governmental organizations and industry all agree on the appropriate regulation.

"There has rarely been consensus," said Thomas.

In Canada the debate over no-sweat policies and ethical sourcing codes is more polarized than in other parts of the world, said Thomas.

"The Canadian industry has lagged behind international industry in dealing with these issues, and the Canadian government has been reluctant to do anything that might impose any standards on industry," Thomas said.

In the meantime, most Canadians would like to know that government contracts  awarded to the lowest bidder aren't subsidized by sweatshop labour, said Thomas.

"There's all sorts of reasons why you would want to know that, but one of the main reasons is to know that your own tax dollars aren't subsidizing sweatshops," said Thomas. "It's as simple as that."

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