US Government Under Fire for Sourcing Apparel from Low-Wage Factories

This post, written by David Wyld, originally appeared on Public Spend Forum

There are news stories that always seem to reanimate themselves every three to six months—the health effects of Americans’ fast-food centered diets, travelers stranded by rain/snow/hurricanes at airports, and oh yes, which Kardashian is getting married or divorced this season. Undoubtedly, the media will find a new corporate target—sometimes, literally Target—to uncover new and more shocking details of worker abuse in garment factories abroad.

As Americans, we love the fact that we can walk into a Wal-Mart, a Sears, a J.C. Penney, or any of hundreds of other major retailers and find an abundance of cheap jeans, T-shirts, underwear, etc. You can outfit a human being today from head to toe for less than ever before. Yet, there is a hitch to that affordability, as in the effort to keep jeans for $19.99 and T-shirts for $9.99, the vast majority of our garments have to be made in far-away lands, rather than in plants in North Carolina or Maine. And yes, that means workers will be paid far less than the U.S. minimum wage and work in plants that are not governed by anything approaching OSHA-level standards for worker safety. Those shirts and pants may even be made by young people whom it would be illegal to employ in the U.S. Yet, most consumers accept, at least in the back of their minds, that their ready access to affordable clothing comes at a cost to individuals abroad. And not to say that corporate executives are “Scrooge-like” in their managerial philosophies, most retail C-level execs face the stark reality that no matter how unseemly some aspects of this new, global clothing supply chain may be, to not participate would mean that their companies would be non-competitive and they—and all their workers—would soon be unemployed.

And so, as predictably as the changing temperatures of the seasons, every few months a major media outlet will run an exposé on how a major retailer or designer clothing company is sourcing its clothing from a factory abroad. The focus will either be on: a) the low wages being paid to seamstresses and other line workers; b) the poor working conditions at the factory; c) the long hours being put in by the workers; d) the abusive supervisory methods employed at the factory; or e) all of the above (and usually, “e” of course is the correct answer). The only thing that varies is which company is the focus this time—Abercrombie & Fitch, Ralph Lauren, The Limited, Old Navy, etc.

However, a recent New York Times investigative report went after a unique target that has heretofore escaped scrutiny for its apparel buying practices abroad. In fact, the subject was the world’s largest buying organization—the federal government.

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