US flouts its own advice in procuring overseas clothing

One of the world’s largest clothing buyers, the US government spends more than $ 1.5 billion annually in overseas factories, acquiring everything from royal blue shirts worn by workers of airport security for olive button-downs required for forest guards and camouflage pants sold to the troops on military bases.

But even if the Obama administration has called on Western buyers to use their purchasing power to press for improvements in the industry working conditions after several disasters in the workplace over the last 14 months, the US government has done little to solve its own buying habits.

Ministry of Labour officials say that federal agencies have a “zero tolerance” policy on the use of plants abroad in violation of local laws, but the US government’s suppliers in countries including Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic , Haiti, Mexico, Pakistan and Vietnam show a set of legal violations and the difficult working conditions, according to the checks and interviews in factories.

Among them: the emergency exits padlocked, the buildings at risk of collapse, falsified wage records and needles hand sewing repeated punctures when workers were pushed to hurry.

Bangladesh shirts with logos Marine Corps sold in military stores were made to DK Knitwear, where working children comprise a third of the work force, according to a 2010 audit that led some suppliers to cut links with the plant. The fist managers workers missed production quotas, and the plant had no alarm system operation, despite previous fires, the auditors said. Many problems remain, according to another audit this year and recent interviews with workers.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, employees of Georgia & Lou factory, which manufactures clothing sold by the Smithsonian Institution, said they were moored illegally more than 5 percent of their salary to about $ 10 per day for any article of clothing with an error. They also described the physical harassment by factory managers and workers surveillance cameras even in bathrooms.

A Garment Manufacturing Zongtex in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which makes clothing sold by the Army and Air Force, an audit conducted this year found nearly two dozen underage workers, some as young as 15. Many of them described in interviews with the New York Times how they were asked to hide from inspectors.

“Sometimes the people themselves to the ground their sewing machines,” said a worker, because of restrictions on bathroom breaks.

Federal agencies rarely know what plants make their clothes, much less require audits of them, according to interviews with purchasing managers and industry experts. Organizations, they added, exert less supervision of foreign suppliers that many retailers do. And there is no law prohibiting the federal government from buying clothes made overseas in dangerous or abusive conditions.

“It does not exist for the exact same reason that US consumers still buy from sweatshops,” said Daniel Gordon, a former top federal procurement official who now works at the George Washington University Law School . “The government cares more about getting the best price.”

Frank Benenati, a spokesman of the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees much of the federal government’s procurement policy, said the administration has made progress in improving surveillance, including an executive order tightening rules last year against the federal providers using plants that rely on debt bondage or other forms of forced labor.

“The administration is committed to ensuring that our government does business only with contractors who place a premium on integrity and business ethics,” he said.

Labor officers and the State Department have encouraged retailers to participate in strengthening the rules on factory conditions in Bangladesh – home to one of the largest and most dangerous garment industries. But defense officials this month helped kill legislation that would have required military stores, which last year made more than $ 485 million profit, to comply with these rules because they said the $ 500,000 annual cost was too expensive.

Federal spending on clothes abroad fails to that of Wal-Mart, the largest merchandiser of the world, spending more than $ 1 billion a year just in Bangladesh, or Zara, the Spanish clothing seller, but it is still in an upper floor which includes H & M, the trendy fashion company based in Sweden, Eddie Bauer and Lands’ End, outerwear and other clothing sellers.

Like most retail brands, US agencies generally do not order clothing directly from factories. They rely on contractors.

This makes it difficult for agencies to follow their global supply chain, with intermediate layers, lax oversight by other governments, some of their own inspectors abroad and few means of holding the order plants that farm work to other plants without the knowledge of customers. When retailers, working groups or other inspect these factories, audits underestimate often problems because managers regularly coaching of workers and medical records.

The US government, though, face particular pressures. Plug garment outsourcing demonstrates the tensions between its procurement practices low bid and objectives of the political high road on labor issues and human rights.

The Obama administration, for example, has favored free trade agreements to boost development in poor countries by cultivating low-skilled, low-overhead jobs like those in the dressmaking industry. The elimination of trade barriers has also lowered prices making it easier for retailers to decamp from one country to another in hunting for cheap labor.

Most economists say that these economies have directly benefited consumers, including institutional buyers such as the US government. But the free trade areas often lack effective methods to ensure compliance with local labor laws, and sometimes speed up a race to the bottom in terms of wages.

Along a dirt road in Gazipur, about 25 miles north of the capital of Bangladesh, riot police fired tear gas shells, rubber bullets and stun grenades in a fierce confrontation with the garment workers last month, sending scores to the hospital. Protesters demanding better conditions included some of a plant called V & R Fashions. In July, listeners rated this plant as “needs improvement” because the remuneration of workers was illegally docked for minor offenses and the building was dangerous, illegally constructed and not intended for industrial use.

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