Originally published at In These Times
A six-foot gash in the wall; charred corpses strewn amid the rubble of a collapsed building; families mourning nameless civilian casualties. Such tragic scenes are historically associated with the aftermath of military aggression, but these days, they also reflect a different kind of military assault—on labor rights. In Bangladesh, Uncle Sam is making the world less secure for workers, one sweatshirt at a time.
The U.S. military is notorious for being an ethically challenged institution, tainted by corruption and innumerable human rights violations at home and abroad. Now, a watchdog group says the military’s clothing businesses are aiding and abetting massive labor exploitation overseas.
As we reported in January, major branches of the armed forces run an extensive apparel manufacturing network that contracts with U.S. firms and overseas factories through its procurement system—business deals with private companies to produce military-branded goods, such as Marines-logo sportswear. These patriotic-themed fashions are then sold through military-run retail outlets known as exchanges, which operate as mostly self-funded businesses and are therefore considered outside of the standard Defense Department budget (though, as a Pentagon operation, they are also taxpayer-supported).
These exchanges have established basic labor codes for contracted overseas producers, covering issues such as child labor, wages, hours, collective bargaining rights and safety. But as research by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) shows, the military has displayed malign neglect when it comes to enforcing those codes, particularly in the garment manufacturing hotbed of Bangladesh, where sweatshops are rife.
The report, which ILRF released in mid-February, documents an epidemic of safety threats at factories that have supplied apparel to military exchanges: missing fire extinguishers, combustible materials kept near hot machines, a massively cracked factory ceiling, underpayment of wages and forced labor conditions. Physical or verbal abuse is commonly heaped upon workers, many of whom are women who have migrated to urban areas from rural communities. Workweeks at one factory lasted up to 80 hours.
At Citadel—a known producer for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) that employs about 700 people in its factory near Dhaka— a “social compliance” audit conducted by a specialized industry auditing organization found that half of workers did not wear protective dust masks. About two-thirds did not even wear shoes. ILRF investigators found that although the exchanges claimed to have verified the labor code compliance of these factories, they repeatedly left issues like these unaddressed.
In some cases, according to the ILRF, the exchanges blatantly ignored third-party accounts of the conditions in their supplier factories. For instance, the report states, “in several cases in this report, the Marine Corps Exchange requires only a factory self-attestation that it is ‘in compliance with all applicable labor laws’ with no substantiating evidence to support this claim.” And even when the exchanges took the time to actually review third-party factory audits, the ILRF continues, the auditors themselves had often overlooked safety hazards and other workplace problems.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who follows the various scandals in the fashion industry over big-name brands that profit off of sweatshop labor. In the past, activist and media investigations have revealed that factories supplying Western fashion brands, both private and military, have repeatedly received passing audit grades despite clear evidence of substandard working conditions.