In the News

How Local Governments Are Using Their Purchasing Power to End Sweatshop Labor

Michelle Chen

May 30, 2014, The Nation

Labor rights activists have been protesting against sweatshops for about a generation, shaming multinational fashion brands for labor abuses and economic imperialism. Yet for all the petition drives and campus rallies, systematic labor exploitation still persists in garment factories across the Global South. But the power of the purse might succeed where the protests haven’t, as some government agencies wield their clout as “ethical consumers.” Pushing individual shoppers to buy sweat-free won’t necessary put a crimp in Wal-Mart’s supply chain, but activists are looking beyond the campus to city, town and state governments to promote conscientious contracting on a mass scale.

Last month, to commemorate the anniversary of the deadly Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, the city of Madison, Wisconsin, launched a contracting policy that commits the city’s vendors to promote fair labor standards. The city’s new “sweatfree” contract guidelines aim to eradicate labor abuse from its international supply chains for the production of government uniforms, including the apparel worn by firefighters and other agency personnel. The guidelines build on the city’s existing sweat-free procurement policies, with disclosure and monitoring mechanisms that aim to “[raise] the bar for human rights due diligence in government contracting” by providing a nationwide model, according to the advocacy network Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium (SPC). Similar to living-wage policies for workers on government contracts—which help raise pay scales for low-income workers across the community—the sweat-free contract model for government purchasing can promote standards for more ethical manufacturing across the global apparel market. Madison’s effort builds on model policies developed by advocates and governments of various cities and states through the SPC, which includes Austin, Berkeley and Maine.

The Madison contract rules cover basic labor protections that reflect International Labour Organization standards. Vendors will be required to disclose detailed information on the entire supply chain, allowing city authorities to oversee factories’ compliance with national rules on wages and benefits, child labor, employment discrimination and maternity leave, fire and building safety codes, and overtime and maternity leave rules. Vendors will be monitored by a Contract Review Panel that includes representatives of the city and international labor experts. And if contractors do not have full disclosure for all their suppliers initially, they must increase disclosure levels annually over the duration of the contract.

Suppliers will also be screened on whether they provide “worker education” and “a grievance process” to help them advocate for their rights at work. There is a special focus on “prevention measures to address health and safety conditions in high-risk areas such as Bangladesh and Pakistan”—two countries associated with “deathtrap” factories that have claimed the lives of hundreds of workers in recent years. The language mirrors provisions of the Bangladesh Accord, an industry-based program for factory health and safety that now has now enrolled about about 170 brands and retailers worldwide.

Like the Bangladesh Accord, the Madison plan will be financed by the participating firms. Contractors are explicitly required “to fund independent monitoring of suppliers and factories where there is a high risk of violations.” However, the funds are spent not directly by the contractors but through the city of Madison, to prevent the kind of corruption that has become widespread in “corporate social responsibility” programs, which have been widely criticized for using sham audits to polish brands’ reputations.

The Madison program doesn’t cover everything—it still lacks firm language on living wage levels, for example. But by establishing a framework for mass procurement under an enforceable government contract, Madison might serve as a template that other cities and towns can adopt. The more public contracts are crafted around a consistent set of ethical guidelines, the more leverage the purchasing agencies gain to shape a market that has hitherto been dominated by exploitation and labor degradation. As the SPC explains in its model policy document, if local and state government purchasing agencies “all used the same living wage standard or defined compliance with general labor standards, such as freedom of association, the same way, factories and manufacturers might be more willing or able to comply with the standards.”

Because the SPC’s model involves contracts between the state and the private sector, it is stricter than a voluntary corporate do-gooder initiative; the government’s word is policy, not just PR. As long as public money is financing a contract contractors are held publicly accountable for meeting the standards. Bjorn Claesson, executive director of the SPC, explains via e-mail:

Government-led initiatives to buy products in decent conditions are different from industry initiatives in one critical respect: the standards are mandatory, not voluntary. Government buyers can contractually enforce the standards and the actions that contractors must take to comply with the standards. A company can choose to live by its own code of conduct or not, choose to remedy violations in its supply chain or ignore them. As a government contractor that same company can be sanctioned if it does not comply with the terms of the contract.

The sweat-free contract model could work on a federal level as well. Stronger procurement standards could help resolve recent contracting scandals involving agencies’ use of factories linked to labor abuses including the Pentagon’s use of sweatshop labor to make military-branded fashions that are sold to civilian consumer markets. The Marine Corps has moved to incorporate guidelines of the Bangladesh Accord into its procurement rules. But Congress has failed to pass legislation to impose this standard across all branches of the military. Activists have long pushed for stronger federal procurement rules that marshal the government’s full purchasing power to set higher standards in the industry, rather than rely on individual agencies to set their own policies.

For now, states and cities are moving ahead of Washington in incorporating ethical principles in their supply chains. If more communities adopt model policies like Madison’s, local governments can collectively raise the bar on global labor rights by consolidating their economic clout in a notoriously exploitative industry. With the government’s leverage as both a consumer and a steward of the public trust, the public sector can hold the line against the fashion industry’s race to the bottom.


Do You Know Where Your Government Uniform Was Made?

Sharon Kelly

April 9, 2014, The Nation

Despite some laudatory local and state efforts, taxpayer dollars are still being used to purchase clothes made in sweatshops.

Yesterday, President Obama signed an order barring federal contractors from retaliating against workers who discuss their pay rates with one another, the latest in a string of executive orders aimed at improving working conditions at companies that do business with the government. President Obama will also order federal contractors to report race- and gender-based compensation data, and has ordered the minimum wage for these contractors hiked to $10.10 an hour.

But these moves apply only to workers in the United States, suggesting the Obama administration seeks to take a narrow approach to a globalized problem.

The federal government, according to a recent investigation by The New York Times, spends over $1.5 billion a year on clothing from factories in countries like Bangladesh, where over 1,200 garment industry workers have died at their jobs over the past eighteen months.

In Vietnam, Haiti, Bangladesh, Mexico, Pakistan and Mexico garment workers sewing clothing for the American government earn salaries so low that even the pope described it as “slave labor.” Some of the factories that outfit federal workers were found to be employing children as young as 15. Managers at other American suppliers were coaching workers on how to dupe auditors. Workers were beaten with sticks. Some soiled themselves because they were forbidden from taking bathroom breaks.

Globalization has made it difficult to escape sweatshop labor. Consumers—be they Walmart shoppers buying a $20 pair of jeans or government agencies contracting for $50 million in uniforms—rarely know the exact location or working conditions of the factories that make their clothes. The garment industry is a layered web of contractors and subcontractors. Companies routinely decamp from one country to the next, prowling for cheaper labor. Federal agencies have a fiduciary obligation to taxpayers to get the best bargain. And yet, taxpayers also expect their money will not underwrite scofflaws who abuse workers.

A handful of cities and states have found a way around this problem. At least five states and more than twenty cities require companies, as a precondition to bidding on contracts, to reveal the addresses of the factory where these uniforms and other clothes will be made. This allows labor advocates and human rights groups to conduct independent investigations of conditions at these plants.

Some of these policies have had good effect. In 2007, for instance, the City of Los Angeles, which has such a requirement, asked the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) to audit a foreign factory that was making uniforms for city workers. The auditors found various labor violations at the factory, New Wide Garment, in Cambodia, which enabled the city to pressure the company to improve. Within months the factory managers stopped restricting workers’ access to toilets, and they began paying workers legally required sick leave. Factory managers also instituted a policy to stop verbal harassment and abuse by managers, and they wrote rules granting more protections for pregnant workers. The city also forced the factory to rehire a union organizer who had been forced to resign, restoring her to her previous position with back-pay and no loss of seniority.

“It may not sound like a lot to us but there it had a big impact on workers’ lives,” said Farshid Yazdi, a management analyst for the City of Los Angeles. “It’s good just to see what kind of impact the city can have.”

Maine leads the way among the states that have rules meant to ensure that the uniforms worn by public workers are not made in sweatshops. State officials require garment companies to reveal which factories make the uniforms and then post this information online. Maine also forces the clothing companies to pay fees to partially fund factory inspections.

Still, labor groups say that even in cities and states like Los Angeles and Maine, which have progressive policies, it’s difficult to ensure that public money is not going toward overseas sweatshops.

In 2012, for instance, the WRC investigated I.T.I.C. Apparel in the Dominican Republic’s San Pedro de Macorís free trade zone, which was a supplier of work shirts and work pants to the city of San Francisco. Investigators found sexual and verbal harassment by top management and supervisors, underpayment of wages, occupational safety violations and other problems. Neither the city’s contractor, which hired the factory, nor the factory itself responded constructively, labor advocates say. San Francisco eventually had to find a new supplier.

Scaling these state and city anti-sweatshop measures up to the federal level will not be easy. A lot more money is at stake. Cities and states typically order millions of dollars worth of clothes whereas the federal government buys a billion worth each year. Expect the pushback from industry to be much stronger.

The Obama administration has been a staunch supporter of free trade. Rules limiting where federal agencies can buy clothes may run afoul of trade goals and can cause diplomatic friction. Federal agencies themselves may also resist any new rules that add cost or complication to their purchasing process. Case in point: officials from the Defense Department’s military exchanges, which sell goods to soldiers and their families on US military bases, helped kill a measure last year designed to tighten safety rules at Bangladeshi factories. Even though these military exchange stores make $485 million from selling clothes on military bases, officials said the $500,000 the measure would add to their costs was too much.

But Bjorn Claeson, executive director of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium, said these rules can work nationally. Federal agencies would need to coordinate more in their purchasing decisions, he said, and they would need to consider conducting joint investigations to ensure they are only using the best factories. “Sustained change requires large-scale collaboration,” he said.

He pointed out for example that in May 2010 several states and cities banded together to try to increase their collective leverage and to share information. The result was the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium, which now counts New York State;Seattle, Washington; and Austin, Texas, among its members. The group provides government officials with draft policies they can adopt. It also maintains an online database of information about the factories that cut and sew uniforms worn by public workers.

For now, the Obama administration is remaining silent on what steps it plans to take to avoid more tax money being spent on uniforms made in illegal and abusive foreign factories. But pressure is mounting. The State Department hosted a roundtable in January to discuss ways to change procurement policy so that the American government stops accelerating the race to the bottom. Several lawmakers say they are working on bills to require that federal agencies reveal what factories make their clothes. And they’re pushing for faster action by the White House.

“While congressional action on this problem is warranted,” Representative Carolyn Maloney wrote earlier this year in letter to President Obama, “I urge you to consider issuing an Executive Order requiring contractors to disclose all factory locations.”


Uncle Sam’s Sweatshops

The Editorial Board

December 29, 2013, New York Times

The American government has pushed retailers like Walmart and Gap to demand better working conditions at factories in the developing world that make their merchandise. But it turns out that the government, which buys more than $1.5 billion of clothes from overseas factories, does not follow its own advice.


These conditions are common in poor countries where local and national governments are too weak or corrupt to enforce their own labor laws. That is why it’s important that retailers and American government agencies inspect and monitor factories to make sure they are not buying from businesses that exploit workers or put them in harm’s way. A building collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 workers in April drove that message home to many clothes companies. More than 120 Western retailers have since agreed to seek better conditions.

Administration officials say they understand the importance of this issue; a presidential executive order last year tightened rules against using factories that employ forced labor. But many government agencies that use middlemen exercise little or no oversight over the factories that are used. And stores that sell more than $1 billion in clothes on military bases every year outsource factory inspections to private retailers that have done a poor job of monitoring suppliers.

The government must do better. Federal agencies can start by disclosing the names of all factories they use; Congress could then order an investigation of the labor violations in those facilities. Next, agencies should jointly develop a code of conduct for overseas factories as well as an inspection regimen. Washington might also consider joining the retailers who have agreed to improve building safety in Bangladesh. In these and other ways, the federal government would improve the lives of millions of workers and set an example for the private sector to follow.


End Use of All Taxes to Fuel Sweatshops

By Kathleen Agena

December 28, 2013 Times Union

The furor that has erupted over a New York Times investigative article documenting widespread safety violations in overseas factories that manufacture apparel and equipment for U.S. military and other federal employees is, in fact, only one facet of a broad spectrum of problems related to the procurement of products subsidized by U.S. taxpayer dollars.

The larger issue involves the purchasing of products by U.S. state and city governments for their public employees.

Like the sweatshops that have been contracted by corporations that supply products to the federal government, many of the factories that produce apparel and equipment to state and city governments reflect a similar pattern of violations including the use of child labor, fatally unsafe working environments, wages that are illegal even under the standards that exist within the countries themselves, discrimination, managers who are both verbally and physically abusive, and a plethora of other labor violations. These conditions are described in a series of well-documented reports entitled "Subsidizing Sweatshops" issued by the International Labor Rights Forum and Sweatfree Communities.

When the reports were sent to state and city administrators, officials from the states of New York, Maine, Pennsylvania and Ohio as well as from the cities of Austin, Texas; Madison, Wis.; and San Francisco requested that corporate CEOs assure them that conditions within the workplaces cited in the report would be improved. These actions on the part of state and city governments are, however, in the minority.

To address this situation, the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium in collaboration with the International Labor Rights Forum has developed a database that tracks the steps in the procurement process of publicly procured products and provides greater transparency in its operation. The database provides a way for those who want to have more information about how their taxpayer dollars are being spent to acquire information that was not available to them previously and, at the same time, allows security officers a window into potentially unsafe factories that they would not otherwise have had.

Tightening the regulations and loopholes in federal procurement contracts will signify a major improvement in the situation.

But, unless comparable regulations are enacted at the state and city government levels, America's image in the world will continue to be tarnished by humanitarian tragedies that have been indirectly financed by the American public.

With the recent trend to bring more jobs back to America, the most appropriate solution to the situation would be to enact legislation requiring that all apparel made for military and other government and public officials and subsidized by taxpayer dollars be made within the United States where working conditions must comply with safety regulations and workplaces can be inspected to ensure that there are no violations.

This would not only reduce the likelihood that tragedies associated with U.S. taxpayer dollars would occur in the future, but it would also provide a boost in employment that would benefit the growth of our economy here.

Kathleen Agena has served with several U.N. agencies and was on Policy Sciences Center team to the Balkans in the 1990s. She is president of The Lindus Institute, http://thelindusinstitute.com.


Sweatshops and Our Tax Dollars

Re “Buying Overseas Clothing, U.S. Flouts Its Own Advice” (front page, Dec. 23):

By Robert J.S. Ross

December 27, 2013 New York Times

The tragedies in Bangladesh — a killer fire in November 2012 and a terrible building collapse in April this year — have put conditions in the global garment industry in the spotlight. Your report on United States government procurement practices shows that the federal government is no better than the retail giants — they all depend on ineffective and outmoded means of enforcing labor and safety standards.

There is another way, as pioneered in the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. It is legally binding on signatories and includes the workers’ voice in safety arrangements. Over a hundred retailers and brands have joined. The United States government could require procurement from companies that have signed the accord, but a requirement to do so was excluded from the recently passed defense authorization act.

The principles for procurement should be supply chain transparency; adoption and enforcement of labor standards in procurement and licensing; and ensuring these standards along the supply chain of retail stores on our military bases.

In addition, federal procurement should address the root causes of labor violations through fair pricing and related responsible purchasing practices. Unless things change, our tax dollars are supporting dangerous sweatshop conditions.

ROBERT J. S. ROSS
Worcester, Mass., Dec. 23, 2013

The writer is a professor of sociology at Clark University and vice president of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium.


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

By Brian Finnegan and Molly McGrath

December 23, 2013 AFL-CIO Now

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.


How the U.S. Government Can Follow Its Own Advice to Be a Responsible Consumer

By Bjorn Skorpen Claeson

December 22, 2013 Labor is Not a Commodity

Today, the New York Times reports child labor, blocked fire exits, unsafe buildings, forced overtime and a range of other illegal, unsafe, and abusive conditions for garment workers in factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti, Mexico, and Thailand.  These factories have at least one thing in common: the United States government is a customer.   That means these abuses take place with the support of our tax dollars and are carried out in our names.  It also means the Obama administration “flouts its own advice” to private sector companies to use their purchasing power to improve working conditions in overseas garment factories.

Because the U.S. government is the world’s single largest buyer it could create a significant push for safe and decent working conditions in supplier factories across the globe by practicing what it preaches.  How would it do that?

First by establishing that illegal and abusive conditions are in fact unacceptable for purchasing by the U.S. government.  Today, most of the abuses uncovered by the New York Times do not cause any alarms to go off for US contracting officers.  Presidential executive orders from 1999 and 2012 prohibit only forced child labor and human trafficking in government contracting, but tacitly permit other illegal and abusive behaviors.

Here are 10 steps the U.S. government should take to be a responsible consumer:

1.      Set Labor Standards for Overseas Procurement

Apparel and other products should be off limits for the U.S. government if the factories and other high-risk points in the supply chain do not comply with applicable laws and regulations and internationally accepted labor standards.  These standards include workers’ right to protect themselves by organizing unions, negotiating legally binding collective bargaining agreements, and, if necessary, refusing dangerous work. The U.S. government should also ensure that supply chain workers earn enough wages to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

Procurement labor standards would be more than just another voluntary and non-binding “code of conduct” adopted by the private industry.  They would be part of the contractual commitment of U.S. government suppliers, and, as such, legally binding and enforceable.

2.      Make Sure Domestic Suppliers Follow the Law

Most apparel purchased by the U.S. government is made in the United States.  But, domestic production does not necessarily mean decent and legal conditions.

On December 11, 2013 U.S. Senator Tom Harkin and the Center for American Progress released reports on widespread worker safety and wage violations in U.S. government contractor facilities that are located in the United States. That means the U.S. government must closely track pay and benefits, and the legal compliance of domestic contractors.  It must also implement remediation requirements to make sure all U.S. workers who make products for the U.S. government work in lawful conditions.

3.      Insource Services

Consistent with the law, the U.S. government should actively consider opportunities for in-sourcing services that are closely associated with inherently governmental functions or are poorly performed by private contractors.  Similarly, the U.S. government should not contract out services performed by federal employees.

4.      Identify the Factories that Supply the Government

The New York Times exposé of abuses in overseas U.S. government contractor facilities was no small feat because these facilities are hidden from public view.   If these facilities continue to operate in the dark, without US government oversight, nothing will change.

Therefore, the U.S. government should require that bidders disclose the names and addresses of all factories that will perform work under a subcontract prior to the contract award.  In addition, contractors and subcontractors must be required to share what they know about working conditions in those factories.  They must be required to release all social audits and inspection reports to the U.S. government.  They should also share these reports with workers to make sure workers know about workplace dangers and labor violations and can protect themselves as necessary.

5.      Address Root Causes of Labor Violations

Complying with the law is not only the factory’s responsibility.  Sometimes the root causes of labor violations go back to the prices, order schedules and other purchasing requirements imposed by the buyers.  Low prices can mean that factories lack essential resources to maintain safe conditions.  Emergency orders can result in extreme production peaks, excessive overtime for workers or unauthorized subcontracting to facilities that operate illegally.

The U.S. government should require contractors to establish and implement responsible purchasing practices as a matter of human rights due diligence.  Absent responsible purchasing practices, contractors will not have the ability to guarantee labor compliance in their supply chains.

6.      Recognize that Labor Compliance is a Process

Good working conditions are never easy to realize.  They require ongoing work.

Consequently, contractors should not simply be required to certify to using “good factories.” Instead, they should be required to present their work plan for good conditions, a compliance plan similar to the plan required under Executive Order 13627  (Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts).  The work plan should address all steps necessary to prevent illegal and unsafe conditions, including responsible purchasing practices, labor rights education, indendent inspections, and an effective grievance process for workers.

7.      Go Beyond Industry Social Auditing Practices

The U.S. government should reject industry social auditing practices that have time- upon-time failed to protect workers from deadly safety hazards.  Contracting officers should not accept industry social audits or certificates, often compromised by conflict of interest, as proof of compliance or as evidence of human rights due diligence. Instead, the U.S. government should arrange for inspections by independent experts have no relationship with the factories or their buyers.  The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh offers a good inspection model.

 8.      Establish a Complaint-Driven Investigation and Remediation Process

The U.S. government should provide for a complaint-driven investigation and remediation process that allows any person or organization to submit a complaint that a contractor or subcontractor has been or is failing to comply with the terms of the contract or procurement policy. Contractors must be required to cooperate fully with investigations.  Prime contractors should also ensure that each subcontractor cooperates fully with investigations.

 9.      Make Workers Whole

The U.S. government should consider “remediation” from the workers’ point of view.  Ensuring that exploited workers have access to appropriate remedies and services, and are not left in situations that expose them to further exploitation, should be the top priority in any remediation process.  The application of contractor sanctions, such as termination of contract or monetary penalties, should be subservient to the goal of making workers whole.

10.  Set Up a System of Interagency Coordination and Multi-Government Collaboration

A collaborative body that pools federal agency resources can be tasked with developing a system to evaluate the integrity of contractor compliance plans and to coordinate monitoring and investigatory activities. A collaborative effort on verification and compliance would provide far greater efficiency to all agencies than a go-it-alone or outsourced approach.  A standardized approach across government agencies would also mitigate confusion among contractors and suppliers.   Federal procurement authorities should also join with state and local government efforts to pursue responsible purchasing, pool resources, share supply chain information, and coordinate monitoring and other enforcement activities.

Bjorn Claeson is a senior policy analyst at the International Labor Rights Forum and the executive director of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium.


Buying Overseas Clothing, U.S. Flouts Its Own Advice

By Ian Urbina

December 22, 2013 New York Times

WASHINGTON — One of the world’s biggest clothing buyers, the United States government spends more than $1.5 billion a year at factories overseas, acquiring everything from the royal blue shirts worn by airport security workers to the olive button-downs required for forest rangers and the camouflage pants sold to troops on military bases.

But even though the Obama administration has called on Western buyers to use their purchasing power to push for improved industry working conditions after several workplace disasters over the last 14 months, the American government has done little to adjust its own shopping habits.

Labor Department officials say that federal agencies have a “zero tolerance” policy on using overseas plants that break local laws, but American government suppliers in countries including Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Pakistan and Vietnam show a pattern of legal violations and harsh working conditions, according to audits and interviews at factories. Among them: padlocked fire exits, buildings at risk of collapse, falsified wage records and repeated hand punctures from sewing needles when workers were pushed to hurry up.

In Bangladesh, shirts with Marine Corps logos sold in military stores were made at DK Knitwear, where child laborers made up a third of the work force, according to a 2010 audit that led some vendors to cut ties with the plant. Managers punched workers for missed production quotas, and the plant had no functioning alarm system despite previous fires, auditors said. Many of the problems remain, according to another audit this year and recent interviews with workers.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, employees at the Georgie & Lou factory, which makes clothing sold by the Smithsonian Institution, said they were illegally docked over 5 percent of their roughly $10-per-day wage for any clothing item with a mistake. They also described physical harassment by factory managers and cameras monitoring workers even in bathrooms.

At Zongtex Garment Manufacturing in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which makes clothes sold by the Army and Air Force, an audit conducted this year found nearly two dozen under-age workers, some as young as 15. Several of them described in interviews with The New York Times how they were instructed to hide from inspectors.

“Sometimes people soil themselves at their sewing machines,” one worker said, because of restrictions on bathroom breaks.

Federal agencies rarely know what factories make their clothes, much less require audits of them, according to interviews with procurement officials and industry experts. The agencies, they added, exert less oversight of foreign suppliers than many retailers do. And there is no law prohibiting the federal government from buying clothes produced overseas under unsafe or abusive conditions.

“It doesn’t exist for the exact same reason that American consumers still buy from sweatshops,” said Daniel Gordon, a former top federal procurement official who now works at George Washington University Law School. “The government cares most about getting the best price.”

Frank Benenati, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees much of federal procurement policy, said the administration has made progress in improving oversight, including an executive order last year tightening rules against federal suppliers using factories that rely on debt bondage or other forms of forced labor.

“The administration is committed to ensuring that our government is doing business only with contractors who place a premium on integrity and good business ethics,” he said.

Labor and State Department officials have encouraged retailers to participate in strengthening rules on factory conditions in Bangladesh — home to one of the largest and most dangerous garment industries. But defense officials this month helped kill a legislative measure that would have required military stores, which last year made more than $485 million in profit, to comply with such rules because they said the $500,000 annual cost was too expensive.

Federal spending on garments overseas does not reach that of Walmart, the world’s biggest merchandiser, which spends more than $1 billion a year just in Bangladesh, or Zara, the Spanish apparel seller, but it still is in a top tier that includes H & M, the trendy fashion business based in Sweden, Eddie Bauer and Lands’ End, sellers of outerwear and other clothing.

Like most retail brands, American agencies typically do not order clothes directly from factories. They rely on contractors. This makes it challenging for agencies to track their global supply chain, with layers of middlemen, lax oversight by other governments, few of their own inspectors overseas and little means of policing factories that farm out work to other plants without the clients’ knowledge. When retailers, labor groups or others inspect these factories, the audits often understate problems because managers regularly coach workers and doctor records.

The United States government, though, faces special pressures. Its record on garment contracting demonstrates the tensions between its low-bid procurement practices and high-road policy objectives on labor and human rights issues.

The Obama administration, for example, has favored free-trade agreements to spur development in poor countries by cultivating low-skill, low-overhead jobs like those in the cut-and-sew industry. The removal of trade barriers has also driven prices down by making it easier for retailers to decamp from one country to the next in the hunt for cheap labor. Most economists say that these savings have directly benefited consumers, including institutional buyers like the American government. But free-trade zones often lack effective methods for ensuring compliance with local labor laws, and sometimes accelerate a race to the bottom in terms of wages.

Along a dirt road in Gazipur, about 25 miles north of the Bangladeshi capital, riot police fired tear gas shells, rubber bullets and sound grenades in a fierce clash with garment workers last month, sending scores to the hospital. The protesters demanding better conditions included some from a factory called V & R Fashions. In July, auditors rated that factory as “needs improvement” because workers’ pay was illegally docked for minor infractions and the building was unsafe, illegally constructed and not intended for industrial use.

Unsafe and Repressive

Like dozens of other factories in the area, V & R makes clothes for the American government, which is constantly prowling for the best deals. In interviews, workers at a half-dozen of these suppliers described the effect of such cost pressures.

At Manta Apparels, for example, which makes uniforms for the General Services Administration, employees said beatings are common and fire exits are kept chained except when auditors visit. The local press has described Manta as one of the most repressive factories in the country. A top labor advocate, Aminul Islam, was organizing there in 2010 when he was first arrested by the police and tortured. In April 2012, he was found dead, a hole drilled below his right knee and his ankles crushed.

Several miles from Manta, 40 women from another supplier, Coast to Coast, gathered late one night to avoid being seen publicly talking to a reporter. Dressed in burqas, the women said that prices of the clothing they make for sale on American military bases are now so cheap that managers try to save money by pushing them to speed up production. In the rush, workers routinely burn themselves with irons, they said, often requiring hospitalizations.

Work does not stop, they said, when it rain pours through a six-foot crack in the ceiling of the top floor of the factory — a repurposed apartment building with two extra floors added illegally to increase capacity. Even after the manager swipes their timecards, they say, he orders them to keep sewing.

While giving a tour of the plant, the manager described the building crack as inconsequential and too expensive to repair. He denied the workers’ other allegations. The owner of Manta declined to comment.

Conditions like those are possible partly because American government agencies usually do not know which factories supply their goods or are reluctant to reveal them. Soon after a fire killed at least 112 people at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh in November 2012, several members of Congress asked various agencies for factory addresses. Of the seven agencies her office contacted, Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, said only the Department of the Interior turned over its list.

Over the summer, military officials told Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, that order forms for apparel with Marine Corps logos had been discovered in Tazreen’s charred remains but that the corps had ties to no other Bangladeshi factories. Several weeks later, the officials said they were mistaken and had discovered a half-dozen or so other factories producing unauthorized Marine Corps apparel. On Sunday, the owners of Tazreen and 11 employees were charged with culpable homicide.

President Obama has long pushed for more transparency in procurement. As a senator, he sponsored legislation in 2006 creating the website USASpending.gov, which open-government advocates say has made it far easier to track federal contracting. However, procurement experts fault the website for requiring agencies to name their contractors, but not identifying the specific factories doing the work. Some states and cities already require companies to disclose that information before awarding them public contracts, said Bjorn Skorpen Claeson, senior policy analyst at the International Labor Rights Forum.

Federal officials still have to navigate a tangle of rules. Defense officials, for instance, who spend roughly $2 billion annually on military uniforms, are required by a World War II-era rule called the Berry Amendment to have most of them made in the United States. In recent years, Congress has pressured defense officials to cut costs on uniforms. Increasingly, the department has turned to federal prisons, where wages are under $2 per hour. Federal inmates this year stitched more than $100 million worth of military uniforms.

No sooner had the Transportation Security Administration, or T.S.A., signed a $50 million contract in February for new uniforms for its 50,000 airport security agents and other workers, than the agency was attacked from all sides.

Union officials, opposed to outsourcing work overseas, objected because the Mexican plant making the clothing, VF Imagewear Matamoros, was the same one that had treated uniforms with chemicals that caused rashes in hundreds of T.S.A. agents. Congress called an oversight hearing, where some lawmakers questioned why two-thirds of the uniforms would be made in foreign factories, saying the deal was a missed chance to stimulate domestic job growth. Other lawmakers faulted the agency for spending too much money on clothing, especially on the cusp of a federal budget crisis, no matter where the merchandise was made.

“Bottom line,” John W. Halinski, T.S.A. deputy administrator, told Congress, “we go for the lowest-cost uniform, sir.”

The hunt for lower costs and the expansion of free-trade pacts have meant that more of this work is being done abroad, often in poor countries where the Obama administration is trying to spur competition and development.

In Haiti, for instance, trucks loaded with camouflage pants, shirts and jackets, some of them destined for American military bases, idle in front of a factory called BKI.

By Meridith Kohut

While the Dominican manager of a garment factory in Codevi says the industry is helping improve lives, a worker says conditions are bad for people like him.

Next year, BKI managers hope to double the amount of camouflage clothing made for the American government, part of a contract worth more than $30 million between a division of Propper International, a Missouri-based uniform company, and the General Services Administration, which outfits workers for more than a dozen federal agencies.

Three years ago, much of this camouflage clothing was made in Puerto Rico, where workers earned the minimum wage of about $7.25 an hour. By 2011, many of these jobs moved to a factory in the Dominican Republic called Suprema. Wages there were about 80 cents per hour and unpaid overtime was routine, according to workers in recent interviews and a 2010 audit. Since then, most of these jobs have migrated again, this time to BKI in a Haitian free-trade zone called Codevi. Average hourly wages at BKI are about 8 cents less per hour than those at Suprema, according to workers.

Standing near the factory entrance, several BKI workers said they were proud of the clothes they made for the American government. “We push hard because we know they expect better,” said Rodley Charles, 29, a quality inspector at the factory.

But there is basic math: the average pay of 72 cents per hour (which is illegal and below Haiti’s minimum wage) barely covers food and rent, said Mr. Charles, who has since quit, and two other BKI workers.

These wage pressures may soon intensify. Codevi will soon face new competition from another industrial park called Caracol, which is being built partly with money from the United States Agency for International Development as part of reconstruction efforts after the earthquake of 2010.

American officials predict that Caracol will eventually create 60,000 new jobs. Current wages there? About 57 cents per hour, or roughly 15 cents less than typical wages at Codevi.

Big Business

At a military store in Bethesda, Md., Tori Novo smiled as she looked over a pair of $19.99 children’s cargo pants made in Bangladesh that sell for $39 in most department stores. The best part of living on base, said Ms. Novo, a 31-year-old Navy recruiter, was “savings like these.”

Known as exchanges, these big-box stores on military bases around the world offer a guarantee: to beat or match any price from rivals. That promise puts the exchanges in direct competition with the deep discounts offered by stores like Gap and Target. It also adds to already intense pressure to lower costs by using the cheapest factories, industry analysts say.

These stores, run by the Defense Department, do big business, selling more than $1 billion a year in apparel alone. Exempt from the Berry Amendment, the exchanges get more than 90 percent of their clothes from factories outside the United States, according to industry estimates. The profits from these tax-free stores mostly go toward entertainment services like golf courses, gyms and bowling alleys on bases.

Though the Government Accountability Office criticized the exchanges over a decade ago for exerting less oversight than private retailers and for failing to independently monitor their overseas suppliers, little has improved.

The Marine Corps and Navy still do not require audits of these factories. The Air Force and Army exchanges do, but the audits can come from retailers, and defense officials fail to do routine spot checks to confirm their accuracy.

For example, Citadel Apparels, a factory in a seven-story building in Gazipur, has cut, stitched and shipped more than 11 metric tons of cotton boys’ T-shirts and other clothes for sale at exchanges on Army and Air Force bases in recent months. This summer, lawmakers in Congress asked the Defense Department for proof that Citadel was safe. Defense officials produced an audit conducted for Walmart, another client of the factory, showing that it had an “orange” risk ranking in July 2012, the same high level of alarm that Walmart had given the Tazreen factory before the fatal fire there last year.

While allowing the factory to stay open, the audit offered an alarming statistical snapshot.

Sixty-five percent: number of workers barefoot, some on the building’s roof. Fifty percent: workers without legally required masks to protect against cotton dust. Sixteen percent: workers missing time-sheets, a common sign of forced overtime. Most serious infractions: cracks in the walls that could compromise the building, and partly blocked exit routes and stairwells.

By January, Citadel’s auditors concluded that most of these dangers had been fixed. However, a half-dozen Citadel workers offered a starkly different picture. Virtually none of the original problems had ever been corrected, they said in interviews last month with The Times.

“We aren’t sewing machines,” one worker said. “Our lives are worth more.”

For now, Bangladesh’s garment sector continues to grow, as do purchases from one of its bulk buyers. In the year since Tazreen burned down, American military stores have shipped even more clothes from Bangladesh.

Ian Urbina reported from Bangladesh and Washington. Research was contributed by Susan Beachy in New York, Poypiti Amatatham in Bangkok, Karla Zabludovsky in Mexico City, Malavika Vyawahare in New Delhi and Meridith Kohut in Ouanaminthe, Haiti.


Canadian government urged to adopt ethical sourcing policy

By Rick Westhead

December 13, 2013 Toronto Star

The Canadian government has no way of knowing if sweatshops are being used to produce some of the uniforms for its civil servants. That’s because companies that win apparel contracts with most federal agencies do not have to disclose the names and locations of the factories they use.

“We