How the U.S. Government Can Follow Its Own Advice to Be a Responsible Consumer

Today, the New York Times reports child labor, blocked fire exits, unsafe buildings, forced overtime and a range of other illegal, unsafe, and abusive conditions for garment workers in factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti, Mexico, and Thailand.  These factories have at least one thing in common: the United States government is a customer.   That means these abuses take place with the support of our tax dollars and are carried out in our names.  It also means the Obama administration “flouts its own advice” to private sector companies to use their purchasing power to improve working conditions in overseas garment factories.

Because the U.S. government is the world’s single largest buyer it could create a significant push for safe and decent working conditions in supplier factories across the globe by practicing what it preaches.  How would it do that?

First by establishing that illegal and abusive conditions are in fact unacceptable for purchasing by the U.S. government.  Today, most of the abuses uncovered by the New York Times do not cause any alarms to go off for US contracting officers.  Presidential executive orders from 1999 and 2012 prohibit only forced child labor and human trafficking in government contracting, but tacitly permit other illegal and abusive behaviors.

Here are 10 steps the U.S. government should take to be a responsible consumer:

1.      Set Labor Standards for Overseas Procurement

Apparel and other products should be off limits for the U.S. government if the factories and other high-risk points in the supply chain do not comply with applicable laws and regulations and internationally accepted labor standards.  These standards include workers’ right to protect themselves by organizing unions, negotiating legally binding collective bargaining agreements, and, if necessary, refusing dangerous work. The U.S. government should also ensure that supply chain workers earn enough wages to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

Procurement labor standards would be more than just another voluntary and non-binding “code of conduct” adopted by the private industry.  They would be part of the contractual commitment of U.S. government suppliers, and, as such, legally binding and enforceable.

2.      Make Sure Domestic Suppliers Follow the Law

Most apparel purchased by the U.S. government is made in the United States.  But, domestic production does not necessarily mean decent and legal conditions.

On December 11, 2013 U.S. Senator Tom Harkin and the Center for American Progress released reports on widespread worker safety and wage violations in U.S. government contractor facilities that are located in the United States. That means the U.S. government must closely track pay and benefits, and the legal compliance of domestic contractors.  It must also implement remediation requirements to make sure all U.S. workers who make products for the U.S. government work in lawful conditions.

3.      Insource Services

Consistent with the law, the U.S. government should actively consider opportunities for in-sourcing services that are closely associated with inherently governmental functions or are poorly performed by private contractors.  Similarly, the U.S. government should not contract out services performed by federal employees.

4.      Identify the Factories that Supply the Government

The New York Times exposé of abuses in overseas U.S. government contractor facilities was no small feat because these facilities are hidden from public view.   If these facilities continue to operate in the dark, without US government oversight, nothing will change.

Therefore, the U.S. government should require that bidders disclose the names and addresses of all factories that will perform work under a subcontract prior to the contract award.  In addition, contractors and subcontractors must be required to share what they know about working conditions in those factories.  They must be required to release all social audits and inspection reports to the U.S. government.  They should also share these reports with workers to make sure workers know about workplace dangers and labor violations and can protect themselves as necessary.

5.      Address Root Causes of Labor Violations

Complying with the law is not only the factory’s responsibility.  Sometimes the root causes of labor violations go back to the prices, order schedules and other purchasing requirements imposed by the buyers.  Low prices can mean that factories lack essential resources to maintain safe conditions.  Emergency orders can result in extreme production peaks, excessive overtime for workers or unauthorized subcontracting to facilities that operate illegally.

The U.S. government should require contractors to establish and implement responsible purchasing practices as a matter of human rights due diligence.  Absent responsible purchasing practices, contractors will not have the ability to guarantee labor compliance in their supply chains.

6.      Recognize that Labor Compliance is a Process

Good working conditions are never easy to realize.  They require ongoing work.

Consequently, contractors should not simply be required to certify to using “good factories.” Instead, they should be required to present their work plan for good conditions, a compliance plan similar to the plan required under Executive Order 13627  (Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts).  The work plan should address all steps necessary to prevent illegal and unsafe conditions, including responsible purchasing practices, labor rights education, indendent inspections, and an effective grievance process for workers.

7.      Go Beyond Industry Social Auditing Practices

The U.S. government should reject industry social auditing practices that have time- upon-time failed to protect workers from deadly safety hazards.  Contracting officers should not accept industry social audits or certificates, often compromised by conflict of interest, as proof of compliance or as evidence of human rights due diligence. Instead, the U.S. government should arrange for inspections by independent experts have no relationship with the factories or their buyers.  The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh offers a good inspection model.

 8.      Establish a Complaint-Driven Investigation and Remediation Process

The U.S. government should provide for a complaint-driven investigation and remediation process that allows any person or organization to submit a complaint that a contractor or subcontractor has been or is failing to comply with the terms of the contract or procurement policy. Contractors must be required to cooperate fully with investigations.  Prime contractors should also ensure that each subcontractor cooperates fully with investigations.

 9.      Make Workers Whole

The U.S. government should consider “remediation” from the workers’ point of view.  Ensuring that exploited workers have access to appropriate remedies and services, and are not left in situations that expose them to further exploitation, should be the top priority in any remediation process.  The application of contractor sanctions, such as termination of contract or monetary penalties, should be subservient to the goal of making workers whole.

10.  Set Up a System of Interagency Coordination and Multi-Government Collaboration

A collaborative body that pools federal agency resources can be tasked with developing a system to evaluate the integrity of contractor compliance plans and to coordinate monitoring and investigatory activities. A collaborative effort on verification and compliance would provide far greater efficiency to all agencies than a go-it-alone or outsourced approach.  A standardized approach across government agencies would also mitigate confusion among contractors and suppliers.   Federal procurement authorities should also join with state and local government efforts to pursue responsible purchasing, pool resources, share supply chain information, and coordinate monitoring and other enforcement activities.

Bjorn Claeson is a senior policy analyst at the International Labor Rights Forum and the executive director of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium.