Thursday, August 18

Chicago Activists Aim to End City’s Use of Sweatshop-Produced Uniforms for Workers

Those in Chicago who wear uniforms to city jobs, such as firefighters, police officers, and maintenance personnel, may soon wear more ethically-produced apparel, thanks to an effort by Chicago Fair Trade activists in the city. The new ordinance, introduced in the Chicago City Council on May 28, would enforce labor rights for the workers who manufacture these garments if the law is passed, essentially cutting out any sweatshop-produced uniforms.

Garment workers in many other countries are often subject to harsh treatments from their employers, so low wages and long hours are common, along with wage theft in some cases. And the working conditions of the factories are just as bad: fire exit doors are padlocked to keep workers from leaving and buildings have haphazardly constructed additions attached to them. (One such factory, the eight-story Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, collapsed last year, killing over 1,000 people and injuring over 2,500 more.)

Chicago Fair Trade drafted the ordinance to mandate that the city would only purchase employee garments from companies that sign an affidavit promising that neither they nor their subcontractors would use sweatshop labor and that they would disclose their supply chains. The ordinance is part of Sweatfree Communities, a national campaign against government purchase of supplies made by sweatshops.

Chicago Fair Trade estimates that U.S. federal, state and local governments spend over $10 billion each year on “unethical apparel” — that is, items produced in sweatshops. However, Chicago is not the first city to try passing such an ordinance; Los Angeles, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Boston and Seattle have enforced labor rights for their municipal uniform factory workers, despite all the layers of contracting and subcontracting that cities must endure to obtain such uniforms.

One potential issue raised against the proposed Chicago ordinance is the lack of oversight. The anti-sweatshop law in Los Angeles, passed in 2004, designates funding for one city enforcement officer, an independent monitor and an oversight committee with worker advocates in order to expose manufacturers who don’t keep this promise. Over the past 10 years, L.A.’s team has uncovered 50 different factories guilty of labor abuses in countries such as Bangladesh, China, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Kenya and Nicaragua.

Executive Director of Chicago Fair Trade Katherine Bissell-Cordova hopes that Chicago will join the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium, a coalition of municipalities around the country that lists ethical apparel suppliers and offers anonymous reporting for workers whose factories manufacture garments for public entities. The demand for ethically-sourced clothing not only affects cities that purchase their uniforms but the services that rent out uniforms to workers, as well.

There is no word yet on whether the ordinance has passed or which suppliers the city will choose for their uniforms.

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