An American Sweatshop

Posted on May 03 1999

Note: The NMI has consistently been accused of human rights abuses from its detractors who continue to promote the existence of sweatshops here to the contrary. Yet the same detractors turn their heads against real sweatshops in their backyards. Read the following recent story from Mother Jones Magazine.

The women at the Lion Apparel factory in Beattyville, Kentucky, are part of a largely female workforce of 15,000 nationwide that sews US military uniforms, according to the May-June issue of Mother Jones magazine. The US “Defense Department keeps costs as low as possible, and these workers pay the price”.

“The sweatshop environment under which some 650 women work doesn’t rest solely with Lion, but also with its main client: the US Government. The employees at Lion’s facilities are among apparel workers nationwide who produce uniforms for the military which spends more than $800 million on clothing for its 1.4 million personnel.
Lion, based in Dayton, Ohio, is among the top three private suppliers with a $52 million contract.

“These factories are located in some of the most rural and impoverished communities in America: isolated in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee, and small towns in Louisiana. Even though the women of Beattyville work for a large Department of Defense contractor, their dismal workplace conditions remain virtually unregulated by the government. And instead of trying to assist them, the US government trades on their labor for the highest possible return.

Then came the campaign urging manufacturers to sign the Workplace Code of Conduct. Absent, however, is the Department of Defense which has a $1 billion garment business that would make it the country’s 14th largest retain apparel outlet right behind Talbots and just ahead of Charming Shoppes, whose stores include the Fashion Bug chain.

“Without the Defense Department’s voluntary adherence to the code, the job of stopping public-sector sweatshops falls with the Department of Labor. Federal contractors that violate wage laws or safety and health codes can lose their lucrative taxpayer-financed contracts. But Suzanne Seiden, a deputy administrator at the department, says that to her knowledge the agency has never applied that rule to government apparel manufacturers. “I just assume that they are adhering to safety and health requirements”, she said. But records obtained by Mother Jones magazine, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited Lion 32 times for safety and health violations in the past 12 years. Furthermore, a 1996 General Accounting Office report estimated that 22 percent of federal contractors had been cited by OSHA for violating standards.

Lion finally came around caving into pressure from the White House and the textile labor unions. The Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) is responsible to securing the lowest bid it can for a contract. DLA is proud of its private-sector partners saying they won’t revisit the days before Ronald Reagan and, more recently, Bill Clinton, both of whom eased regulations covering government contracts. “We’re getting out of the bid daddy thing”, explains DLA’s Lynford Morton.

“In 1997, the DLA spent $811.8 million on uniforms and textiles for the Defense Department, and ultimately sold them for $996.9 million, a 22.8 percent markup. Of these uniforms, 97 percent were sold tot he US armed services though the DLA also sells uniforms to foreign governments, including El Salvador ($1 million from 1995-99 in coveralls, flight boots and jackets, signal flags, and camouflage cloth, and Saudi Arabia for $17.9 million from 1995-99 in jackets, tents, boots, tarpaulins, helmets and assorted clothing.

“The DLA says that it doesn’t profit from uniform sales, and that the markup is used to cover bureaucratic overhead. But the numbers don’t add up. In 1997, the DLA’s overhead amounted to 9.3 percent of the cost of purchasing the uniforms, which left an additional $100.6 million unaccounted for. When an internal Defense
Department task force reviewed the DLA’s 1997 budget, it reported that profits were slated to fund other Department of Defense programs, specifically referring to the $20 million that was budgeted for the military’s operations in Bosnia. The Defense Department has since claimed that the transfer was incorrectly labeled. Members of the task force, meanwhile are tight-lipped, but stand by their report. “We reported accurately based on the facts we had at the time,” says Navy Captain Barbara Brehm.

“In 1998, $3.4 million in profits from these stores was allocated to the Army’s Morale Welfare and Recreation fund, described by a Defense Department official as a network of programs to improve “productivity, mental and physical fitness, individual growth, positive values, esprit de corps, and family well-being”. Among the projects underwritten by the fund are Shades of Green, an Army hotel in Florida that features heated swimming pools and free transportation to Disney World; a beachside resort in Hawaii; and an 18-hole golf course at Fort Knox, Kentucky, not more than 120 miles west of Beattyville.”

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