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The U.S. Military and Apparel Worker Exploitation

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I’ve talked a bit before about how U.S. government contracting priorities contribute to the exploitation of apparel workers overseas. So I want to highlight this report from the International Labor Rights Forum detailing the role of the U.S. military specifically in this problem. You can download the entire report at the link but here’s an excerpt from the summary:

However, the International Labor Rights Forum(ILRF) has learned that the military exchanges are, in effect, “flying blind,” sourcing their private-label clothing from factories in Bangladesh without taking any independent action to investigate or remedy safety hazards and illegal conditions. Instead, the military exchanges rely on either the factories’ own unverified statements of compliance with labor law or the social audits of companies such as Walmart and Sears—audits that have historically failed to protect workers—to confirm safe and decent working conditions. In some cases they simply cut off relationships with suppliers when presented with evidence of violations, leaving workers behind in potential deathtraps. This recklessness toward working conditions in their supply chains first came to light when Marine Corps licensed apparel was found in the rubble of the Tazreen Fashions factory, where 112 workers were killed in November 2012.

The exchanges’ inaction in the face of dangerous working conditions in their supply chains weakens the Obama administration’s efforts to get U.S. brands and retailers to do more to promote workers’ safety and labor rights in Bangladesh. The appearance of a double standard for the U.S. government’s own retailers diminishes the administration’s credibility and weakens its ability to promote human rights in Bangladesh and elsewhere. The U.S. military exchanges, the Administration, and Congress should work together to eliminate this double standard and ensure that the U.S. government’s own retailers take advantage of their unique position as U.S. government representatives and buyers in the private marketplace to become an example for private-sector retailers to follow.

There are challenges to the U.S. doing something concrete to change policies, particularly budgetary concerns and congressional pressure to cut costs. But this is also an area where an Obama executive order around the military exchange, factory inspections, and ethical sourcing could also do a lot of good in setting the U.S. government as institution contributing to a solution rather than a problem.

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  • Does “Marine Corps licensed apparel” mean USMC tee shirts that say “Semper Fi” or actual uniforms?

    It doesn’t change the point, I’m just curious.

    • Jake

      The former.

  • JoyfulA

    In the early 1980s, I worked with US Navy civilian employees, some of whom were apparel workers on uniforms and other clothing for Navy sailors. I was stunned to learn that the US government had employees on piecework, just like garmentworkers in private industry in days gone by.

  • Mojo

    This isn’t a budgetary issue since the BX/PX system doesn’t use appropriated funds (tax dollars) to purchase goods, just to transport them to OCONUS locations and for some infrastructure costs. It would jack up prices and decrease the amount contributed to morale and welfare programs but wouldn’t increase tax expenditures.

  • James

    Does anyone actually know who operates the exchange system? I know it isn’t done by the services as such, but is (for example) a PX an activity of the DOD, the DA, or some third organization (although who else I cannot imagine).

    Fixing this will be a major pain, though. Fundamentally the point of the exchange system is to provide the same shopping options that one would get in the US with access to an urban area. (Fucking BRAC. Why not just call it what it is: the New Army of the Confederacy Commission)

    • James

      That sounded more pointed than I intended: should read “anyone know who actually”

    • Nathanael

      If I were President, I think the first thing I’d do would be to pack BRAC with New Englanders and Californians who were paranoid about Southerners. Dismantle the Confederate forces completely.

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