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The U.S. Government and Sweatshop Apparel


This is a very strong piece of journalism detailing how the United States government contributes to the exploitation of apparel workers around the world. The problem is multifaceted. Some of it stems from constant pressure from a Congress that doesn’t care about safe or dignified jobs pressuring the Pentagon to cut unnecessary expenses like uniforms made in respectable conditions. Some issues come from the military base exchanges guaranteeing products sold at equal or lower prices to whatever military families get on the outside, meaning downward pressure on the world’s working conditions. But other parts of the problem stem from the government simply having very little interest in ensuring that it is not part of the problem.

Labor Department officials say that federal agencies have “zero tolerance” for 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.”

There’s no question that American consumers could put pressure on the government to live up to international labor standards. But this sort of movement, if it ever actually exists, is almost certainly going to be ephemeral as the nature of activism goes from one issue to another for reasons no one can ever pin down. As I’ve stated before, the only real solution to these problems over the long-term has to be giving workers in factories access to courts around the world, not dissimilar to the human rights decisions made in Spain against dictators like Augusto Pinochet for instance, that gives workers real access to monetary compensation and punishes contractors, including governments, for working with contractors who violate national labor laws, abuse workers, and provide unsanitary and unsafe working conditions. While complex to create, this has to be the long-term goal in order to provide the workers of the world the power to improve their lives without risking further capital mobility to yet another impoverished nation.

Also, wouldn’t it be nice if the American government wasn’t part of the problem for once?

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