Tim Louis: Is the City of Vancouver's ethical purchasing policy meaningful?

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      When I was in my second term on Vancouver city council (2002-2005), I was approached by my good friend Tom Sandborn, who had a very serious concern.

      Tom alerted me to the fact that the City of Vancouver was purchasing apparel manufactured in sweatshops located in many countries around the world where health and safety regulations were either nonexistent or were never enforced.

      In fact, workers were regularly dying on the job.

      By working collaboratively with all city councillors, I was able to get council to pass an ethical purchasing policy on February 7, 2005. This was an enormous victory.

      After I left council later in 2005, and unbeknownst to me, the ethical purchasing policy, while still on the books, for the most part ceased to be monitored in any meaningful way.

      Over time, the city increasingly prioritized evaluating purchasing on the basis of value for money and a competitive procurement process.

      While the city did continue to maintain a supplier code of conduct consistent with the original ethical purchasing policy, it was notable that no mechanism existed to monitor compliance.

      Tom found out about this recently when it came to light that two workers, from a Haitian factory which supplied goods to the city, had died.

      Both workers had fallen ill for reasons unrelated to their work. However, in Haiti there is no government provided health care as there is here in Canada, and it is the employer’s responsibility to pay health-care premiums to a private insurer.

      In this case, and unbeknownst to the workers in the factory, the employer had ceased paying the health-care premiums—instead pocketing the money.

      When the two ailing workers went to the hospital for care and treatment, both were turned away because they had no health-care coverage.

      They both died.

      As a result of the above, Tom, my life partner Penny Parry, and I set about lobbying Vancouver city council to make the city’s ethical purchasing policy meaningful. We proposed the hiring of an independent outside body to monitor the city’s list of suppliers and to conduct periodic on-the-ground inspections of the factories.

      We pointed to San Francisco where there is a long-standing contractual relationship with the Worker Rights Consortium (W.R.C.).The W.R.C. is hired by San Francisco to fully monitor compliance with their ethical purchasing code. The W.R.C. is also paid to conduct periodic on-the-ground inspections of the factories that supply San Francisco.

      Working collaboratively with Councillors Jean Swanson and Christine Boyle, we drafted a motion which they presented to council on June 21. The motion instructed city staff to obtain cost estimates to contract with an independent monitor such as the W.R.C. and to report back to council. The motion also proposed the creation of a volunteer ethical purchasing oversight committee made up of volunteer citizens.

      At the committee hearing the next day, a number of citizens spoke to Swanson’s and Boyle’s motion. All spoke in favour.

      Tom, Penny, and I then held our collective breath as council members debated and added some amendments to the motion.

      After a lot of huffing and puffing, the amended motion was carried unanimously!

      This success is only the first stage. We must now wait for staff to report back and then see what council does with the report.

      We have nevertheless taken a giant step toward once again making the City of Vancouver’s ethical purchasing policy meaningful, and toward protecting the lives and health of workers around the world.

      Hats off to Councillors Swanson and Boyle for being the catalysts that made this happen! 

      Daily atmospheric CO2 [Courtesy of CO2.Earth]

      Latest daily total (July 1, 2022): 420.57ppm

      One year ago (July 1, 2021): 418.33pm

      Tim Louis is a Vancouver lawyer and former city councillor and park commissioner. This article first appeared on his blogThe Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.