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The U.S. Government Must Change Its Buying Practices to Protect and Respect Workers' Rights in Its Own Supply Chain

A worker sews pants for a military contractor, Propper International, at the BKI plant in the CODEVI industrial area in Ouanaminthe, Haiti, where workers are paid .72 an hour (below the minimum wage) and are regularly sickened by dirty drinking water.

Today’s New York Times reported a comprehensive overview of child labor, forced overtime, wage violations and other illegal, dangerous and inhumane conditions at factories that produce apparel for the U.S. government in Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Pakistan, Thailand and Vietnam. As the story reminds us, the U.S. government is a major buyer at the top of numerous supply chains. Just as major brands and retailers that buy from thousands of global suppliers fail to comply with laws, protect workers and respect workers' rights, the federal government’s system for purchasing goods and services has failed to ensure that workers who produce these goods in global supply chains do so free from danger and exploitation. From its workers’ uniforms, to clothes using the logo of its armed forces, to goods sold at large stores on military bases, the U.S. government is the buyer, brand owner or retailer of more than 1 billion dollars of clothes yet it pays virtually no attention to the conditions in the many thousands of workplaces around the world where the goods are made.     

No different from the failed systems used by most companies to monitor working conditions and labor rights in their supply chains, federal government procurement as currently practiced allows companies to win lucrative government contracts while breaking laws and failing to meet widely known workers’ rights standards. Companies doing business along both supply chains use a variety of voluntary non-binding schemes to certify that they comply with labor laws and workers’ rights. Decades of experience—and several high-profile workplace disasters in the past few years such as the Rana Plaza building collapse—show that voluntary systems of self-certification do not work. In Bangladesh alone, more than 1,800 workers have died in preventable fires and building collapses while producing for the biggest global garment brands and retailers since 2005. Their workplaces were monitored by numerous voluntary programs run by corporate buyers and their suppliers. The Times did the heavy-lifting to find these far-flung workplaces, and it is now clear that the U.S. government must be included in the list of major garment buyers that has failed to protect and respect workers’ rights in its supply chain.

Regarding federal procurement, both the Clinton and Obama administrations took the positive step of issuing executive orders prohibiting forced labor, child labor and trafficking in government acquisition. Speaking out in principle against these violations is correct, but systems and resources are not in place to follow through on investigation and enforcement. Because of this lack of enforceability, companies continue to win major government contracts with little or no external, independent review of their workplace compliance with labor laws or core international standards. On Dec. 11, one of these companies, VF Imagewear, was awarded a contract worth more than $85 million to produce uniforms for several agencies under the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of the Interior, with no monitoring or enforcement mechanism to ensure the uniforms are not produced under illegal or exploitative conditions.

In short, the federal government has declared a “zero-tolerance policy” for labor and human rights violation in its supply chain, yet the government takes no measures to make that supply chain transparent or enforce any labor standards.    

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in response to the Times investigation:

Today’s New York Times investigation should outrage American taxpayers as they learn that their hard-earned tax dollars are funding factories with documented abusive and inhumane conditions, as we have seen in Bangladesh. Selling goods and services to the government is a lucrative business, in which many firms draw profit from the exploitation of workers subsidized by U.S. taxpayers.

The Obama administration should strengthen executive orders on procurement to ensure that companies earning profits from U.S. taxpayer dollars do not break labor laws and violate human rights at home and abroad. The administration should ensure transparency by mandating the disclosure of factory locations where workers produce these goods. In addition, the U.S. government should explicitly reward high-road companies that respect labor laws and workers’ rights. 

Illegal and unsafe workplaces are not only a problem in distant workplaces of the federal procurement supply chain. On Dec. 11, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Ia.) and the Center for American Progress (CAP) released reports on widespread worker safety and wage violations in federal procurement involving contractors and workplaces in the United States. While the technical solutions to ensuring compliance with labor laws and workers’ rights at home and abroad will vary, any sustainable solution must be based on transparency and enforceability. Information on factories and their labor compliance must be publicly available and proven violations must lead to penalties and exclusion from future contracts.    

This is the type of reporting that demands a political response. Federal government action is needed at three levels. First, the Obama administration should strengthen executive orders such as E.O. 13126 and E.O. 13627 and improve purchasing rules to eliminate widespread labor rights violations by companies earning profits from U.S. taxpayer dollars while breaking labor laws and violating human rights at home and abroad. This task begins with the simple task of revealing factory locations and making information about companies that break the law easily available to all, including those who award and manage government contracts. Government can take a series of concrete steps to move toward responsible procurement. When buying garments produced in Bangladesh, the U.S. government should require contractors and their suppliers to join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety as the U.S. Marine Corps recently did.  

Second, to make these improvements last, Congress must pass laws that include respect for labor rights in procurement rules as a condition of continuing as contractors for the U.S. government. Currently, violation of labor laws simply is not part of the criteria for qualifying as a contractor—at home or abroad. Lastly, there are companies that do respect these laws and workers’ rights, and the U.S. government should launch a program that rewards these high-road practices in doing business with the U.S. government and taxpayers.  

Meanwhile, at least five states and 25 cities have sought solutions and developed experience and innovative efforts to take responsibility. They already require companies to disclose their factory locations before they get a public garment contract. Why doesn't Congress require the same of the federal government to avoid taxpayer money subsidizing illegal or unfair labor conditions? Efforts to address this widely known problem at the federal level should learn from these programs.

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