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The American Government Just As Bad As Walmart

Written By: A. Coffin

Everybody knows the ugly stories about Walmart; they purchase everything from low cost countries, at the lowest possible price. It is their mission provide the lowest price, and they accomplish their mission. Wouldn't it be something if you found out that the Government was just as bad as Walmart in some of its business practices?

Walmart has been castigated for supporting companies who abuse their workers, particularly children. Especially in the case of garment factories, child labor, blocked fire exits, unsafe buildings, and forced overtime seem to be the norm.

In the case of factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti, Thailand, and even Mexico, many of the abuses mentioned above exist and are well documented. What may not be as well documented is that the U.S. government is purchasing, in large quantities, from these very same factories. The U.S. government is displaying the same despicable business practices as Walmart – and getting away with it.

Before the question devolves into traditional party-line politics, it is important to realize that the U.S. government has been associated with these abuses for over a decade. This isn’t one party or the other; this is the U.S. government, which is to say, us. Leadership from both sides of the aisle have continually urged the private sector to improve the working conditions of overseas garment factories, all the while purchasing from those very same factories.

The U.S. government is one of the world’s largest single garment buyer

  • The U.S spends over 1.5 billion dollars on uniforms from overseas facilities including:
    • everything from TSA uniforms to conservation officer uniforms; and
    • all the clothing sold in military bases at post exchanges.

In both 1999 and 2012, presidential executive orders prohibited forced child labor and human trafficking in contract purchasing for the government. However, other abuses seem to be tacitly permitted.

  • At a recent audit at a Cambodian plant, which makes clothing for the Army and the Marines, nearly two dozen underage workers were found during an audit.
  • In Bangladesh, abused workers…a third of whom were children, sewed Marine Corps "logoed shirts". The plant had no working alarm system, despite previous fires. Exits were frequently blocked and locked.

The Labor Department claims a ‘zero tolerance’ program for these overseas factory abuses, but the audits and interviews show that is not reality.

How Does This Happen?
How does this happen? Federal agencies rarely know who even makes their clothes; much less require audits of them, according to the New York Times. Additionally, there is actually no law against purchasing clothes manufactured overseas under unsafe or abusive conditions.

But the real reason, according to Daniel Gordon, a former top federal procurement official, now at George Washington University Law School, says that the law doesn’t

“…exist for the exact same reason that American consumers still buy from sweatshops. The government cares most about getting the best price.”

The government says it’s made much progress recently, citing rules prohibiting purchasing from factories that use ‘debt bondage’ or other forms of forced labor. They also urge private sector retailers to strengthen their rules on factories in Bangladesh.

At the same time, however, defense officials recently helped kill a legislative effort requiring military stores, which made $450 million dollars of profit last year, to comply with those rules, saying that the price tag of compliance, at $500,000 dollars, was too expensive.

There are ways to fix the issue, according to the International Labor Rights Forum’s Bjorn Claeson:

  • Set Labor Standards for Overseas Procurement
    • The labor standards should not be ‘voluntary.’  They should be part of the contractual commitment.
  • Make Sure Domestic Suppliers Follow the Law
    • Even though 1.5 billion dollars is spent overseas, most of the purchases are domestic. But even many of these contract producers don’t follow requirements for lawful conditions.
  • In-source Services
    • Don’t contract out services that can be ‘in-sourced,’ with more control.
  • Identify Factories that Supply the U.S. Government
    • Require bidders for jobs to supply names and addresses of all facilities where work will be performed.
  • Address Root Causes of Labor Violations
    • The U.S. government should perform due diligence on the companies that provide the contracts.
  • Recognize that Labor Compliance is an On-going Process
    • Any company that supplies labor for the U.S needs to have an on-going and sustainable plan for preventing unsafe conditions, including independent inspections.
  • Go Beyond Social Auditing Practices
    • Arrange for independent inspections by parties who have no relationship with the factories or the buyers.
  • Establish Complain Driven Remediation
    • Allow complainants to seek remediation not through contract buyers, or sub-contracted factories, but through the U.S. government.
  • Make Workers Whole
    • Consider remediation for abused workers, so it doesn’t keep happening.
  • Set Up a System of Interagency Coordination and Collaboration
    • A standardized approach across all agencies would reduce confusion among suppliers and contractors.

It’s a complicated issue, and the path forward isn’t clear. What is clear, is like Walmart, the U.S. government…which is us…values cheap goods more than the people who make them.

In the words of Walt Kelly’s long-ago comic strip, Pogo,

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”


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