Photo by Meridith Kohut for the New York Times
When it comes to procuring clothing overseas, the United States government is “flouting its own advice,” the New York Times claims in a damning front-page report Monday. Although the U.S. Department of Labor says that federal agencies have a “zero tolerance” policy on using garment factories that break local laws, American government suppliers in countries such as 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 the offenses? Padlocked fire exits, unstable building foundations, falsified pay records, child labor, and the looming threat of injury to workers who make everything from the royal-blue shirts worn by airport security to the camouflage pants sold to troops on military bases.
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“Even though the Obama administration has called on Western buyers to use their purchasing power to push for improved industry working conditions after several workplace disasters over the last 14 months, the American government has done little to adjust its own shopping habits,” writes Times reporter Ian Urbina. “Federal agencies rarely know what factories make their clothes, much less require audits of them, according to interviews with procurement officials and industry experts.”
No law prohibits the U.S. government from purchasing clothing produced overseas in unsafe or abusive environments.
Another stumbling block: No law currently prohibits the federal government from purchasing clothing produced overseas in unsafe or abusive environments. “It doesn’t exist for the exact same reason that American consumers still buy from sweatshops,” Daniel Gordon, a former top-level federal procurement official, tells Urbina. “The government cares most about getting the best price.”
The U.S. government spends more than $1.5 billion a year on clothing produced at overseas factories. Although it doesn’t have the reach of Walmart, which spends more than $1 billion a year in Bangladesh alone, or Zara, the No. 1 apparel seller, the U.S. government is still on par with leading retailers such as H&M, Eddie Bauer, and Lands’ End, the paper notes.