President Obama has recently taken some steps in the right direction on labor issues. But he needs to go much further.
He was correct to issue an executive order raising wages for federal contractors to $10.10 per hour. He also appropriately in his State of the Union address called for a minimum wage increase for all U.S. workers.
But the U.S. government has a profound responsibility to raise wages and working conditions for federal contractors abroad, too -- or at least to avoid contributing to sweatshops overseas.
The president said that "if you cook for our troops' food or wash their dishes, you should not live in poverty." But what if you sew their clothes and live in Bangladesh or Haiti? Does that make it fair to work in deadly conditions for pennies a day?
So far, the U.S. government has done little to use its own leverage as the world's largest buyer of clothes, according to a recent investigation by The New York Times. In fact, some federal agencies, including the Defense Department, blocked congressional efforts to increase safety in these factories, the Times found.
The past year was a deadly one for the people who cut and sew our clothes. More than 1,200 of these garment workers died in fires and factory collapses in Bangladesh. Hundreds of others have been arrested, beaten or shot while protesting for higher wages in Cambodia, Vietnam and elsewhere in the world.
The Obama Administration has pressured private clothing companies like Gap and Walmart to use their purchasing power to force factory owners in Bangladesh and elsewhere to make working conditions safer and to pay better.
Yet U.S. government suppliers routinely break local labor laws across the globe, including in Cambodia, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico and Vietnam. Some of the factories that supply the American government were found to be paying workers less than the minimum wage. In Haiti, workers were illegally paid only 72 cents per hour. Some Cambodian workers were as young as 15.
Uncle Sam's dependence on sweatshops has particular resonance in Latin America. Free trade policies, many of them pushed by the Obama Administration, are bringing more sweatshops to Mexico and Honduras, where workers sew uniforms for federal agencies for a couple dollars a day.
For instance, over most of the past decade, several thousand workers at a factory in Torreon, Mexico, have made the majority of the uniforms worn by the airport security guards in the United States who wand us before we fly. In a particularly dark irony, many of the uniforms worn by U.S. border patrol agents are made at the same factory.
Bolstering wages for American workers while using tax dollars to subsidize sweatshops overseas is neither ethical nor practical.
Obama needs to go further and end the federal government's reliance on sweatshop labor.
Jack Mahoney is technical advisor and regional organizer in Latin America for the International Union League for Brand Responsibility. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright Jack Mahoney.