U.S. Government Buys $1.5B Annually in Clothes from Sweatshops


Washington flouts its own rules and spends more than $1.5 billion a year at overseas factories that have a history of legal violations, the New York Times said.

Violations in countries including Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Pakistan and Vietnam include locked fire exits, buildings in danger of collapsing, falsified wage records and recurring hand punctures from sewing needles when workers are pushed to hurry up, the newspaper said.

U.S. agencies buy from these knitting, dyeing and sewing facilities despite a U.S. Labor Department “zero tolerance” policy regarding federal agencies using overseas plants that break local laws, the Times said.

Shirts with U.S. Marine Corps logos sold in U.S. military stores were made at DK Knitwear Ltd. of Dhaka, Bangladesh, where a 2010 audit found child laborers made up a third of the workforce, the Times said.

Clothing sold by the Smithsonian Institution was made by Georgie & Lou Co. in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where workers were illegally penalized more than 5 percent of their $10 daily wage if any clothing they made was imperfect, the Times said, basing what it said on audits and interviews at factories.

Georgie & Lou calls itself “an eco-sustainable company” on its website, a United Press International check indicated.

U.S. Army and Air Force clothes were made at Zongtex Garment Manufacturing Ltd. in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, were an audit this year found nearly two dozen underage workers, some as young as 15.

Several young workers told the Times they were instructed to hide from inspectors.

“Sometimes people soil themselves at their sewing machines” because of restrictions on bathroom breaks, one worker said.

Frank Benenati, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees federal procurement policy, told the Times the administration was making progress in improving oversight.

“The administration is committed to ensuring that our government is doing business only with contractors who place a premium on integrity and good business ethics,” he said.

Federal agencies rarely know what factories make their clothes because they buy from contractors, the Times said.

The agencies exercise less oversight over their foreign suppliers than do many retailers, procurement officials and industry experts told the newspaper.

There is no law prohibiting the federal government from buying clothes produced overseas under unsafe or abusive conditions.