WASHINGTON — The US government, one of the world’s biggest clothing buyers, spends more than $1.5 billion a year at factories overseas, acquiring everything from the royal blue shirts worn by airport security workers to the olive button-downs required for forest rangers and the camouflage pants sold to troops on military bases.
But though the Obama administration has called on Western buyers to use their purchasing power to push for improved working conditions after several workplace disasters during the last 14 months, the US government has done little to adjust its own shopping habits.
Labor Department officials say federal agencies have a “zero-tolerance” policy on 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.
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 workforce, 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 more than 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 in bathrooms.
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. “The government cares most about getting the best price.”
Frank Benenati, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said the administration has made progress in improving oversight, including an executive order last year tightening rules against federal suppliers using factories that rely on debt bondage or other forms of forced labor.
“The administration is committed to ensuring that our government is doing business only with contractors who place a premium on integrity and good business ethics,” he said.
Federal spending on garments overseas does not reach that of Walmart, which spends more than $1 billion a year just in Bangladesh, or Zara, the Spanish apparel seller, but it is in a top tier that includes H&M, Eddie Bauer, and Lands’ End.
US agencies typically do not order clothes directly from factories. They rely on contractors. This makes it challenging for agencies to track their global supply chain, with layers of middlemen, lax oversight by other governments, few of their own inspectors overseas, and little means of policing factories. When retailers, labor groups, or others inspect these factories, the audits often understate problems because managers regularly coach workers and doctor records.
The US government, though, faces special pressures. Its record on garment contracting demonstrates the tensions between its low-bid procurement practices and high-road policy objectives on labor and human rights issues.
President Obama has long pushed for more transparency in procurement. As a senator, he sponsored legislation in 2006 creating the website USASpending.gov, which open-government advocates say has made it far easier to track federal contracting.
However, procurement experts fault the website for requiring agencies to name their contractors but not identifying specific factories. Some states and cities already require companies to disclose that information before awarding them public contracts, said Bjorn Skorpen Claeson, senior policy analyst at the International Labor Rights Forum.