Yesterday, President Obama signed an order barring federal contractors from retaliating against workers who discuss their pay rates with one another, the latest in a string of executive orders aimed at improving working conditions at companies that do business with the government. President Obama will also order federal contractors to report race- and gender-based compensation data, and has ordered the minimum wage for these contractors hiked to $10.10 an hour.
But these moves apply only to workers in the United States, suggesting the Obama administration seeks to take a narrow approach to a globalized problem.
The federal government, according to a recent investigation by The New York Times, spends over $1.5 billion a year on clothing from factories in countries like Bangladesh, where over 1,200 garment industry workers have died at their jobs over the past eighteen months.
In Vietnam, Haiti, Bangladesh, Mexico, Pakistan and Mexico garment workers sewing clothing for the American government earn salaries so low that even the pope described it as “slave labor.” Some of the factories that outfit federal workers were found to be employing children as young as 15. Managers at other American suppliers were coaching workers on how to dupe auditors. Workers were beaten with sticks. Some soiled themselves because they were forbidden from taking bathroom breaks.
Globalization has made it difficult to escape sweatshop labor. Consumers—be they Walmart shoppers buying a $20 pair of jeans or government agencies contracting for $50 million in uniforms—rarely know the exact location or working conditions of the factories that make their clothes. The garment industry is a layered web of contractors and subcontractors. Companies routinely decamp from one country to the next, prowling for cheaper labor. Federal agencies have a fiduciary obligation to taxpayers to get the best bargain. And yet, taxpayers also expect their money will not underwrite scofflaws who abuse workers.
A handful of cities and states have found a way around this problem. At least five states and more than twenty cities require companies, as a precondition to bidding on contracts, to reveal the addresses of the factory where these uniforms and other clothes will be made. This allows labor advocates and human rights groups to conduct independent investigations of conditions at these plants.
Some of these policies have had good effect. In 2007, for instance, the City of Los Angeles, which has such a requirement, asked the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) to audit a foreign factory that was making uniforms for city workers. The auditors found various labor violations at the factory, New Wide Garment, in Cambodia, which enabled the city to pressure the company to improve. Within months the factory managers stopped restricting workers’ access to toilets, and they began paying workers legally required sick leave. Factory managers also instituted a policy to stop verbal harassment and abuse by managers, and they wrote rules granting more protections for pregnant workers. The city also forced the factory to rehire a union organizer who had been forced to resign, restoring her to her previous position with back-pay and no loss of seniority.
“It may not sound like a lot to us but there it had a big impact on workers’ lives,” said Farshid Yazdi, a management analyst for the City of Los Angeles. “It’s good just to see what kind of impact the city can have.”