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.