As he gets ready to put Americans to work on big-league federal projects, President Trump seeks to cut “burdensome red tape” for federal contractors. But that might mean cutting a few fingers and toes, too. That’s because Trump has repealed an Obama administration executive order ensuring fair pay and safety standards for workers contracted for government projects. So the workers Trump wants to supposedly rebuild bridges and highways will be working under a regulatory regime that’s now more likely to ease up on abusive employers in “public-private partnerships.”
Despite exaggerated criticisms that the executive order would unfairly burden corporations, the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule was not a major policy change. It simply required that firms bidding for large federal contracts in services like food vending or construction disclose past labor violations. Trump’s repeal seals a congressional rollback on a basic Obama administration measure, which had already been partially hobbled in court last October by business groups that challenged the rule.
Though industry lobbyists’ claimed the requirement to disclose labor violations amounted to “blacklisting,” the rule wouldn’t actually bar an agency from contracting with any firm that had such a record. Instead, it would subject a massively under-regulated sector—which includes influential multinationals like Lockheed Martin and AT&T and encompasses a fifth of America’s workers—to greater scrutiny. The basic concept, as Christine Owen of National Employment Law Center explains, is “the commonsense proposition that businesses profiting from the receipt of federal contracts should demonstrate that they follow the law.”
Many don’t. According to a Demos analysis, “Approximately 40 percent of all federal contracting dollars in 2013 went to contractors with health, safety or wage violations on their record.” A 2016 report by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office revealed that in fiscal 2015, two-thirds of the 100 largest federal contractors broke federal labor law. Based on federal labor data, “More than 300,000 workers have been the victims of wage-related labor violations while working under federal contracts in the last decade” in projects involving 12,000 companies.