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Aldermen advance anti-sweatshop ordinance after awkward debate

Rich Hein/Sun-Times Library

Rich Hein/Sun-Times Library

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Updated: August 31, 2014 6:19AM



Uniforms, head gear and footwear worn by Chicago Police officers, firefighters and other city employees could not come from “sweatshops” or be produced using child labor, under a crackdown advanced Tuesday after a politically-incorrect debate.

The ordinance, championed by the City Council’s Asian-American Caucus and approved by the Budget Committee, would require the city to purchase millions of dollars in uniforms only from those garment vendors who sign affidavits ensuring there are no sweatshops anywhere in their supply chain, including sub-contractors.

Uniform contractors that fail to comply would be found in default. That would empower the city’s chief procurement officer to either terminate the contract and rebid or give the contractor a 30-day “opportunity to cure” the defect.

The ordinance defines “sweatshop labor” as any work performed by a person engaged by a contractor or sub-contractor that has “habitually violated laws of any applicable jurisdiction governing wages, employee benefits, occupational health and safety, non-discrimination or freedom of association.”

Abusive forms of child labor were defined as work performed by a person under 18 either, against their will, under threat, in violation of a jurisdiction’s minimum age requirement or the use of anyone under 18 for illegal activities including prostitution or the production or trafficking of illegal drugs.

The ordinance was introduced just weeks after the one-year anniversary of a garment industry disaster in Bangladesh, Thailand that killed 1,129 workers and injured 2,515 others.

On Tuesday, chief sponsoring Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) acknowledged that there is no evidence that any of the uniforms currently worn by city employees was produced in a sweat shop.

“All of these garment contracts are going to come up in the next couple of years. We’re gonna make sure their supply chains are humane and we’ll go from there,” said Pawar, who had a grandfather he never met who was paid sub-standard wages and forced to endure deplorable working conditions at a garment factory in India.

“We know that Wal-Mart has an inhumane supply chain. We know that GAP does this. … We know that Nike does this. We know this is a problem across the garment industry. So, it’s not symbolic. And we buy a lot of uniforms….If they’re produced abroad, there’s a good chance that they’re likely produced in conditions that aren’t humane. The best way to deal with that is to buy uniforms domestically. Buy `em from Chicago vendors.”

During the debate that preceded Tuesday’s Budget Committee vote, there was an awkward moment when the general counsel for the city’s Department of Procurement Services said he knew of no sweat shops located in Chicago.

Ald. Jim Balcer (11th) then asked, “Do you consider women [who] are forced into prostitution slave labor?” When the general counsel agreed, Balcer said, “So, we do have a form of slave labor.”

That prompted Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) to say, “I thought they were willing participants.”

After the meeting, Austin sought to clarify her remark for fear that it might be portrayed as politically incorrect. She said she wasn’t talking about sex slaves. She was referring to paid prostitutes who choose to sell their bodies for a living.

“The women who are doing this on their own—out of their own necessity. Not someone forcing them into it,” she said.



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