Labor Dangers

U.S. overseas garment purchases under scrutiny.
Melissa Topey
Jan 20, 2014

 

One of the largest clothing buyers, the United States government, spends more than $1.5 billion each year overseas to purchase clothing such as military uniforms used by government agencies.

Some of those items are made in factories that are below standard to even intolerable working conditions, commonly called sweatshops, said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

“It’s not in the interest of American jobs, American taxpayers or global human rights when our government procures goods from factories with records of blatant international labor violations” Brown said in a prepared statement.

The Obama administration, which has called for improved industry working conditions, has done little itself to exert any influence. Brown has asked for the General Services Administration, which makes purchases for the federal government, to set an example for other businesses by not conducting business with contractors who violate labor rights and worker safety laws, especially regarding child workers.    Legislators and the public rarely know what factories make the clothing federal agencies wear, as no oversight is required. There is no law stopping the federal government from buying clothing produced overseas.

“American taxpayers deserve to know the addresses of factories receiving contracts before they are awarded,” Brown stated.

Brown wants to change that with the reintroduction of the “Wear America Act”

The act would require disclosure of those addresses and for the GSA to know of and take into account the working conditions at the plants when making purchasing decisions.

There are a lot of companies that make domestic apparel, including sourcing of the raw material, to handle the demand, said Mary Repke, spokeswoman for Annin Flagmakers, which has a manufacturing facility in Coshocton.

“We have done studies on this” Repke said.

Anything that can be done to help them keep jobs in America needs to be done, she said.

There have been recent controversies and tragedies in the textile industry that may have given the proposed act a much better chance of passage than even a year ago, said John Miller, professor of economics at Wheaton College.

There was heavy criticism when it was revealed the 2012 London Olympic games opening ceremony uniforms for the U.S. Olympic team from Ralph Lauren had been outsourced to China, he said.

This year’s team uniforms for the Sochi Olympic games were again made by Ralph Lauren but were manufactured in the United States, according to published reports.

Another influencing event occurred on April 24, 2013, when more than 1,100 workers were killed, and hundreds more disabled, when the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed. The United States was the largest single destination for clothes made there, said Miller.

European countries pushed for a legally binding “joint liability” agreement that would make giant international retailers legally responsible for the conditions in the factories that make their products.

“I think the Brown bill at least embraces the spirit of that approach” Miller said.

The momentum of the bill is compounded by the slow comeback from the recession, where creating and protecting Americanjobs is the No. 1 issue on the minds of most citizens, he said.

Legislation would help level the playing field for U.S. textile manufacturers who have to compete against a foreign country.

“If you are a labor organizer, it’s devastating when a business says they would like to help you but they can make it cheaper overseas” Miller said

This legislation is directly related to setting up a global floor of labor and safety standards, he said.

Protecting overseas workers would not add much to the cost of products. Studies have shown that for a worker making a $100 suit in Mexico, increased protections would add $2.80 to the cost, Miller said.

That is not much to meet the basic request of these workers who work in sweatshop conditions, he said.

Their demands:

• To have their work accurately reported.

• To have at least one day off a week.

• To have a living wage to support family.

• To have safe working conditions.