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How the Government Can Lead on Supporting Businesses that Lift Working Standards

How the Government Can Lead on Supporting Businesses that Lift Working Standards

Through our tax dollars used in government purchasing, U.S. taxpayers are collectively the largest buyer of goods in services in the world. Being that big gives us power. And it gives us responsibility to hold the government accountable for how it spends those dollars. However, our government does very little to ensure our tax dollars are spent responsibly, whether it’s through buying uniforms, electronics or food from businesses that support decent conditions in the thousands of workplaces in the United States and around the world. A new report by the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) lays out some clear ideas to improve federal government purchasing and the capacity to protect and respect human rights of workers in its own supply chain. On Sept. 10, the AFL-CIO hosted a panel with ICAR human rights and corporate accountability experts, law and business professors from Georgetown University and a journalist from The New York Times to discuss how the U.S. government can obey labor laws and respect workers’ rights.        

Labor and human rights activists have long known about this lack of accountability, and both the mainstream press and U.S. Congress have noted the staggering scale of the problem both at home and abroad. The ICAR report reviews the limits of the existing legal framework, explains how previous efforts to improve the rules failed and presents a menu of policy choices to finally take action to improve a system that often rewards unfair competition by contractors who cut costs by violating labor laws at home and abroad. Instead, the ICAR report shows how to build respect for labor rights into the government purchasing process and give incentives to contractors to take the high road.

Any viable plan to improve government purchasing practices requires a stronger mandate to eliminate unfair competition by establishing clear rules, transparency and sufficient staff, budgets and training at contracting agencies that do this important work. This past July, the Obama administration proposed actions to take such measures in awarding contracts for goods and services produced in the United States. Those improved policies will need support to be implemented. However, around the world our government relies on the same failed systems used by most companies to monitor their own working conditions and labor rights in their supply chains. We also must take measures that address our government’s global supply chain. The ICAR report analyzes the government purchasing process and pinpoints the many places in the process where government contractors can be held accountable. Some proposals borrow solutions that have been implemented by local and state governments and universities to clean up supply chains. There are innovative solutions to these problems such as the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which shows how major purchasers can use their power to improve conditions in supply chains. The U.S. government should draw lessons from the accord’s commitment to accountability.      

It is possible to improve working conditions in supply chains that depend on our tax dollars, if we use our power to demand better practices. The ICAR report provides detail about how to do that effectively in the complex process of government purchasing.

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