The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh last April exposed the cruel link between abusive Global South factories and the Western brands they supply. But while consumers may have been shocked to learn ofÂ the GapÂ orÂ Benetton‘s latest designs strewn amid the wreckage of â€śdeath trapâ€ť factories, they might have missed another bit of debris: the label of the U.S. government. In fact, much of the clothing churned out by overseas sweatshops is custom-made for Uncle Sam.
In an extensive investigative report,Â New York TimesÂ details how the federal government’s contracts with overseas factories to make uniforms and other apparelÂ are connected to egregious human rights violations, including child labor and union suppression.
A recent audit by labor monitoring authorities found workers as young as 15 at a factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia that produces clothes to be sold by the Army and Air Force. Some workers spoke to theÂ TimesÂ of having to work long shifts without breaks, forcing them to soil themselves while sewing.
TheÂ TimesÂ alsoÂ reportedÂ evidence of child labor in another Bangladesh factory commissioned to produce Marine Corps shirts. And at yet another facility, this one making clothes for the General Services Administrationâ€”which supplies uniforms for more than a dozen federal agenciesâ€”beatings of workers were reportedly frequent, as was the often brutal suppression of labor organization. Both facilities lacked proper fire protections.
And in Haiti, a country scarred by the legacy of U.S. military intervention and devastating trade policies,Â government-supported low-wage garment workÂ underscores the U.S. military’s continued influence over the impoverished island. A local clothing producer, BKI,Â told theÂ TimesÂ it hopes to expand its production of camouflage wear this year thanks to a $30 million contract with a Missouri-based uniform company and the General Services Administration. Meanwhile, the workers inside earn 72 cents per hour on average, which is below Haiti’s minimum wage and â€śbarely covers food and rent.â€ť
Such overseas deals are part of the governmentâ€™s practice of “procurement,” or contracting with private firms for goods or services. Ultimately, however, whether the buyer is a public agency or a high-fashion retail brand, any trade with the Global South garment industries runs the risk of worker abuses, corporate impunity and rampant exploitation.
Recently, PR-conscious private-sector clothing-makers have made some overtures toward improving labor practices along their supply chains. In Bangladesh, for example,Â the Rana Plaza collapseÂ and other disasters have prompted about 120 multinational brands, including Adidas and H&M, to shown some willingness to reform their supply chains by signing onto the legally bindingÂ Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. But thus far, few similar improvements have been enacted by the U.S. government.
Following the Rana Plaza disaster, the White House did make the largely symbolic move of temporarilyÂ suspending Bangladeshâ€™s trade preferences on some goods. Thereâ€™s been little action, however, on a more concrete proposal that would target improving military procurement in Bangladesh.Â According to a recent memo from the office of Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.),Â the military “provides little to no oversight of the labor and safety conditions” in its supply chain and has failed to address evidence of labor abuses. One exception is the Marine Corps Trademark and Licensing Office: After the agency’s labels, displaying the slogan â€śThe Few, the Proud,â€ť turned up in the ruins of the deadly 2012Â Tazreen factory fireÂ in Bangladesh, the Office implemented stronger worker safety provisions for its suppliers that parallel the Bangladesh Accord, as well as child labor restrictions. For the most part, though, Miller’s memo suggests the military contracting system has largely resisted meaningful labor reforms.
In June, Rep. Miller teamed up with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) to proposeÂ legislation to compel military exchangesâ€”special military-run sales outlets that share the consumer clothing market with private retailersâ€”toÂ adopt the Bangladesh Accord. Though the proposal wassuccessfully incorporatedÂ into the House’s version of the pending military spending bill,Â it was ultimately left out of the one in the Senate.
And supply-chain labor abuse isnâ€™t limited to Bangladesh alone. In light of this, theÂ advocacy group International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) has urgedÂ the federal government to set strict labor standards for overseas procurement in general, with the option of sanctioning contractor firms â€śif the factories and other high-risk points in the supply chain do not comply with applicable laws and regulations and internationally accepted labor standards.â€ť The ILRF also promotes a more comprehensive monitoring structure that would provide independent oversight that engages workers and unions.
Bjorn Claeson, ILRFÂ senior policy analyst, tellsÂ In These Times that the government should take chief responsibility for upholding decent labor standards in industries known for violating workers’ rights through stricter monitoring and investment in better labor conditions.
â€śThe government should expect to pay for products made in decent working conditions, in compliance with all applicable labor standards, by workers who earn a living wageâ€”that is, a fair price,â€ť Claeson says. â€śIn the context of procurement, paying a fair price is the way the government ‘invests’ in compliance.â€ť
Ideally, activists say, the governmentÂ would retake controlÂ of its supply chain from private contractors and give more service jobs to federal employeesâ€”thus avoiding outsourcing, andÂ the attendant costs and risks, altogether.Â This practice, known as â€śinsourcing,â€ť would reverse a longstanding trend toward privatization in the public sector and would likely take considerable political effort.
In the meantime, however, if private clothing companies can be pressured to change their shoddy labor practices, then surely government agencies can pursue a higher standard for factory workers whose everyday struggles make a shameful mockery of â€śThe Few, the Proud.â€ť
This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on January 2, 2014. Â Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Michelle ChenÂ isÂ a contributing editor atÂ In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor atÂ CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer ofÂ Asia Pacific ForumÂ on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine,Â cain.