Labor groups on Monday called on President Obama and the government to adopt new regulations to ensure safe working conditions at all federal government apparel contractors.

This story first appeared in the December 26, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The reaction came in the wake of a front-page New York Times story that the International Labor Rights Forum said “links abusive working conditions in overseas sweatshops to purchasing by several U.S. federal agencies and entities.”

Citing audits and interviews at factories, the Times article said there is a “pattern of legal violations and harsh working conditions” in overseas plants used by U.S. government clothing suppliers in such countries as Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Pakistan and Vietnam. The safety violations range from locked fire exits, structurally unsound buildings, falsified wage records and repeated workplace injuries.

The American Apparel & Footwear Association told WWD that $1.6 billion worth of uniforms was procured last year through the Defense Logistics Agency for the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and other federal agencies. The figure for overall government uniforms and clothing not purchased through DLA for agencies such as the Forest Service is much larger, said an AAFA spokesman, although an exact amount was unavailable.

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The global fashion industry and labor rights groups have mobilized to address serious and rampant safety and working condition violations in Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry in the wake of the Tazreen Fashions fire in November 2012 and the Rana Plaza building collapse this past April that killed more than a combined 1,240 workers. The groups have also pressured Congress and the Obama administration to require federal agencies to tighten their procurement policies relating to outsourced apparel, after garments bearing Marine insignias were found in the rubble of Tazreen.

“Over a year after 112 workers were killed in a fire at a factory that sewed Marines logo clothing, the rest of the U.S. government still has not taken action to prevent unsafe and abusive working conditions in the factories that make procured or licensed apparel, or clothing sold at military exchanges,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the ILRF. “The Tazreen fire and the Rana Plaza building collapse that killed tenfold more garment workers just a few months later should be a wake-up call to the U.S. government to put into place enforceable labor standards to ensure workers’ rights and transparency in government supply chains.”

The ILRF called for 10 steps to safe and legal conditions in U.S. government contractor facilities, including increased supply chain transparency; adoption and enforcement of labor standards in procurement, licensing and military exchange supply chains, and addressing the root causes of labor violations through fair pricing and related responsible purchasing practices. The Marine Corps and Navy do not require independent audits of factories, while the Air Force and Army exchanges rely on audits from retailers, according to the Times.

Some experts question the details of the Times article, such as whether the clothing were actual military uniforms, where stricter “Made in America” guidelines are involved, or if the goods in question were more related to licensed goods sold at military base exchange stores for public consumption. They also noted that the article was lacking in specifics on the percentage of clothing found to be made in so-called sweatshop conditions, and was unclear on what organizations conducted factory inspections or audits.

Kevin Burke, AAFA’s president and chief executive officer, said, “Whether it is sourcing products at home or abroad, or by the U.S. government or by private industry, we urge that steps be taken to ensure that goods are produced in a socially responsible, safe and sustainable manner. AAFA has a long history of providing the industry with valuable resources and intelligence as it continually improves its supply chain. We look forward to engaging with the U.S. government as it addresses similar supply-chain concerns because collaboration is one of the most important components in our collective progress.”

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said based on the report, “The United States government has failed to ensure transparency and integrity in the government supply chain, and this has fostered international sweatshops and egregious labor-law violations. We call on President Obama to end these appalling practices.”

Trumka said the investigative piece should “outrage American taxpayers as they learn that their hard-earned tax dollars are funding factories with documented abusive and inhumane conditions, as we have seen in Bangladesh.

“The Obama administration should strengthen executive orders on procurement to ensure that companies earning profits from U.S. taxpayer dollars do not break labor laws and violate human rights at home and abroad,” he said. “The administration should ensure transparency by mandating the disclosure of factory locations where workers produce these goods. In addition, the U.S. government should explicitly reward high-road companies that respect labor laws and workers’ rights. Additionally, contractors must be required to release all social audits and inspection reports to the U.S. government. Finally, the Department of Labor should establish a published list, [General Services Administration] database and Web site on labor violations and government contractors.”

ILRF applauded the recent move by the Marine Corps Trademark & Licensing Office to require licensees that manufacture in Bangladesh to join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a five-year binding agreement led by IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union and signed by 115 retailers and brands. The ILRF and other labor officials are calling on the U.S. government to require all federal agencies to use only retail and apparel brands that have signed the accord.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said, “It’s outrageous that the U.S. government would be involved in purchasing goods that have been made by workers being exploited by unscrupulous factory owners in other countries.”

Last month, Appelbaum was part of a delegation that included New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli and Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, that traveled to Dhaka to meet with survivors of the Rana Plaza factory collapse and Tazreen factory fire and others involved in improving work conditions in Bangladesh garment factories. The delegation also met with H&M executives involved in improving conditions in the garment sector, labor leaders who are organizing garment workers, and Rob Wayss, the Dhaka-based executive director of the accord.

Appelbaum called on President Obama and the federal government to sign the accord and pressure U.S. retailers and brands to do so as well. He said the North American-based Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is a “publicity stunt” that “denies binding responsibility.”

Reps. George Miller (D., Calif.) and Jan Schakowsky (D., Ill.), who introduced legislation in June that would require all military licensed and branded apparel sold at military base stores to comply with the accord, said in a joint statement: “The New York Times’ reporting reveals that the U.S. military exchange store system fails to effectively monitor the working conditions at its suppliers. This inaction virtually assures that many garments sold at Military Exchanges are made by underpaid, poorly treated workers toiling in hazardous conditions. While the Marine Corps Trademark & Licensing Office has required licensees and manufacturers to join the accord or abide by its conditions in order to protect the Marine Corps brand and uphold fundamental American values related to workers’ rights and safety, the rest of the system’s oversight is in dire need of reform.”