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Ethical Buying Gains Steam

York U. signs on as activists pressure 2010 Olympics organizers.

By Tom Sandborn 18 Mar 2008 |

Tom Sandborn is a contributing editor to The Tyee, with a focus on labour and health policy issues.

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Child labourers in India.

Earlier this month, Toronto's York University became the 17th Canadian university to embrace an "ethical purchasing" policy, a way of doing business already adopted by Vancouver's city hall and many dozens of other towns, colleges and school districts across North America.

But activists still are stalking one particularly high profile victory: a state of the art ethical purchasing approach by the people organizing Vancouver's Winter Olympics in 2010.

Ethical purchasing commits tax-payer-supported bodies to investigate their suppliers of products to make sure that they are not being produced in factories that employ child workers or commit other labour abuses. Buyers are told to place a high priority on fair-traded and environmentally friendly products.

'Exhausted, overjoyed'

At York, a student-led coalition has worked for years to get the university to adopt such policies. After students held a 45-hour sit-in outside his office, York president Mandouh Shoukri reportedly agreed his university would join two factory-monitoring organizations, the Fair Labor Association, which is viewed as the more moderate of the two and includes business representatives, and the more militant Worker Rights Consortium.

Promises made by president Shoukri, if implemented, will reportedly give York a set of policies at least as tough as those adopted by the University of Toronto in 2000.

"We are exhausted, but overjoyed," said Besmira Alikaj, one of the students who participated in the sit-in. "This is the commitment we were looking for, and it's great to hear it after all the work that we've put into it, not only over the last few days, but over the past three years."

Alex Bilyk, York's media relations director, confirmed his university would be joining both monitoring organizations, but declined to comment on whether York would match the pledge made by the University of Toronto.

"It is a work in progress," Bilyk said.

Years of pressure

Alijaj, a 23-year-old political science and economics major, told The Tyee that the sit-in grew out of student frustration with years of fruitless negotiations with York administrators. (For videos of the demonstration, visit here, here and here.)

Alda Escareno is a fourth-year fine-arts student at York and a staff member of the Toronto-based anti-sweatshop Maquila Solidarity Network. She told The Tyee that the sit-in grew from frustration that students could not get a meeting with the president even though "we had just gathered up more than a thousand signatures on a petition."

Escareno said the students also had threatened to leaflet the campus on a day when many recruits were going to be visiting York and deciding whether or not to attend. "This decision will look good on York, but people should realize that students had to push for over eight years to get action."

Wide movement, many enlistees

Across North America, 181 colleges and universities are registered with the Worker Rights Consortium. In Canada, five municipalities, including Vancouver, the first Canadian city to adopt such rules, have ethical purchasing policies, while across the U.S., six states, 38 cities, and 118 school districts are now functioning under similar policies.

In Ontario, nine Catholic school boards are currently involved with a pilot project monitoring the factories that produce their uniforms for possible labour abuses. (Full disclosure: in years past, I helped organize the campaign in Vancouver for adoption of ethical purchasing policies by UBC and the city government.)

Bob Jeffcott speaks for the Maquila Solidarity Network. "What has been achieved at York should be implemented at the Olympics," he said. "We are calling on VANOC to make improvements in its current Buy Smart policy to publicly disclose the locations of its supplier factories and the findings of factory audits and corrective action taken."

VANOC is the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

"We are also urging them to create mechanisms for workers and other interested parties to register complaints when workers' rights are violated in supplier factories that make Olympic products," Jeffcott said. "Surely an event dedicated to fair play and good sportsmanship should implement these values in the way it treats the workers who produce Olympic uniforms and novelties. What's needed here is transparency."

Policy in place, says VANOC

Former Vancouver city councillor Tim Louis, who played a key role in Vancouver adopting ethical purchasing rules in 2005, urged VANOC to "adopt a fully transparent and accountable ethical purchasing system for the Olympics in Vancouver."

VANOC spokeswoman Margaret Nevin says the Vancouver Olympics organizers have already taken steps to assure ethical purchasing. Suppliers are already required to submit to annual inspections that determine whether or not they are complying with a supplier's code of conduct, she told The Tyee.

Not good enough, says MSN's Jeffcott.

"The current VANOC system is no better than that in place for many commercial operations," he said. "They haven't yet required any real transparency. The audits are done by a commercial firm and any defects are kept secret, known only to VANOC and the company involved.

"There is no requirement that factory names and locations be publicized, and no complaint process," Jeffcott said. "The VANOC code looks better than most, but it is still defective. A 'Just Trust Us' approach is not adequate. We still need to see some transparency."

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