According to a new piece in the New York Times, the United States government spends $1.5 billion a year on garments created in factories overseas — some of which employ children, some of which keep their workers in deplorable, unsafe conditions, and some of which pay far less than $1/hour. Our politicians can condemn hazardous conditions in factories abroad all they want — but the truth of the matter is that our government is directly supporting the unchecked exploitation of garment workers and creating conditions in which rival factories feel the need to drive down prices and increase productivity to an impossible extent.
According to Ian Urbina of the NYT, Labor Department officials claim that federal agencies have a "zero tolerance" policy regarding overseas factories that break local laws — but because the government relies on independent contractors to place their uniform orders, the global supply train is nearly impossible to track. But the military is far from faultless in this: although Labor and State Dept. officials encouraged retailers to push for stronger rules on factory conditions in Bangladesh, Urbani notes that defense officials this month killed a bill that "would have required military stores, which last year made more than $485 million in profit, to comply with such rules because they said the $500,000 annual cost was too expensive." $500,000 annually to prevent horrific work conditions overseas was too much for the government to shell out, apparently.
Urbani spoke to garment workers in several countries, all of whom making clothing for U.S. government employees. The conditions they work in are unconscionable. At Zongtex Garment Manufacturing in Cambodia, where clothing worn by the Army and Air Force is manufactured, an audit conducted this year found about 20 underage workers. "Sometimes people soil themselves at their sewing machines" because they're not allowed bathroom breaks, one worker told Urbani. V & R Fashions, a factory in Bangladesh, also makes clothes for the U.S. government; the building in which it's housed has been found unsafe and illegal, and last month several workers protesting their low pay and terrible work conditions there were hospitalized after clashing with riot police. Manta Apparels, another Bangladeshi factory that makes uniforms for the General Services Administration, is known as one of the most repressive factories in the nation. Employees say that beatings are common there, and the fire doors are chained shut during the day to keep them from escaping. In 2010, labor advocate Aminul Islam was arrested by the police and tortured for organizing there. Two years later he was found dead, "a hole drilled below his right knee and his ankles crushed." Of course, the exploitation isn't restricted to abroad — a World War II-era rule known as the Berry Amendment mandates that most military uniforms be made on American soil. So, as part of the never-ending quest for underpriced goods, the defense department has been increasingly turning to federal prisons, where inmates are paid under $2/hr to make military uniforms.
Competition between factories to obtain U.S. government contracts has driven an insane, unthinkable decline in worker wages: for instance, in 2010 the majority of camouflage clothing made for the U.S. government was manufactured in Puerto Rico, where workers earned $7.25/hour. By 2011, most of the camouflage clothing-creation was done in a factory in the Dominican Republic, where workers were paid 80 cents an hour. Now, they're made in a factory in a Haitian free-trade zone where workers are paid 72 cents an hour. Soon, those jobs will migrate again, to an industrial park called Caracol, which Urbani writes is "being built partly with money from the United States Agency for International Development as part of reconstruction efforts after the earthquake of 2010." Employees there will be paid 57 cents per hour.
Like the average American consumer, the U.S. military industry needs to recognize that getting the cheapest goods possible is neither feasible nor morally permissible. There is no excuse for giving financial support — and even financial incentive — to an industry always looking to deprive its laborers of a living wage in order to maximize its profits. As one Bangladeshi garment worker told Urbani: "We aren't sewing machines. Our lives are worth more."