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Chicago Says No to Sweatshop Uniforms

Chicago cops and firefighters won’t be wearing uniforms made in “sweatshops” according to a new law recently passed by the municipality’s City Council. The ordinance, sponsored by the City Council’s Asian American Caucus and endorsed by the city’s Budget Committee, has set new standards for the purchase of uniforms, headgear and footwear worn by police officers, fire department personnel and all city employees who wear uniforms bought from outside sources. Many of those sources are based in Asia.

All vendors that supply the city of Chicago with garments, footwear, headgear and other wearing apparel or accessories are now required to sign an affidavit attesting that no sweatshops are primary or sub-contacted suppliers in any link of the supply chain for these materials if they want to do business with the city. 

Under the new ordinance “sweatshop labor” is defined as “any work performed by a person engaged by a contractor or sub-contractor who has ‘habitually violated laws of any applicable jurisdiction governing wages, employee benefits, occupational health and safety, non-discrimination or freedom of association,” according to a published report.

The chief sponsoring alderman of the Chicago law, Ameya Pawar, was quick to assert that the city had no hard evidence that any uniforms worn by its employees were manufactured in a sweatshop. However, the new law comes in the wake of several fatal disasters and the disclosure of sweatshop conditions in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and other Asian locations, all of which are major suppliers of U.S. apparel, a portion of which are purchased by American cities for their police, firefighters and other personnel.

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Contracts for uniforms would come up for renewal in the coming years and the City Council would make sure none were sweatshop manufactured, the alderman reported.

Asian nations and other countries that supply U.S. garment and textile buyers have begun efforts to rectify sweatshop and dangerous conditions in factories by setting new mandatory safety standards, improving wages and benefits and generally implementing better working conditions, with government mandated inspections and penalties for non-compliance.

Suppliers found to be non-compliant under the Chicago law, and those who decline to sign the affidavit, will be found in default. Chicago’s chief procurement officer will then be able to terminate the contract, send it out again for rebidding, or give the supplier thirty days to rectify the problem.

A worldwide anti-sweatshop sentiment has gained traction in recent years and pressure for significant reforms are building. Chicago’s action may spur other cities to enact similar laws. If Chicago’s strict new standards are adopted by other cities in the U.S. and elsewhere, non-compliant apparel and textile suppliers could sustain major financial losses.