Leveraging Government Procurement

Governments don’t just make law and policy.  They are also very big consumers. 

In the U.S., government procurement accounts for 11% of our GDP.  The U.S. federal government is the world’s single largest purchaser of goods and services.  As large consumers, governments bear a responsibility to ensure that taxpayer money does not contribute to any form of unlawful or harmful behavior.  Governments can also create markets for positive business practices that guarantee workers safe and decent working conditions, living wages, and full respect for all labor rights.

In the U.S., public contracts are typically awarded to the lowest responsible bidder, preventing favoritism and corruption in the expenditure of taxpayer dollars. Unfortunately, in a global economy low-bid procurement can result in an advantage for bidders that underprice the competition by offering products made by cheap labor in illegal sweatshop conditions.  These hidden violations of labor standards in the public procurement supply chain insidiously undermine open and fair competition for public contracts.

ILRF is working to create a U.S. public procurement market that values government and industry transparency, corporate accountability for labor rights abuses in the supply chain, and fair competition for public contracts.

This is how:

We research factories that supply government agencies.

Our Subsidizing Sweatshops and Toxic Uniforms reports [links] reveal that workers who make products procured with U.S. tax dollars are often paid poverty wages for long hours of work in unsafe and illegal conditions.  Dangerous Silence, [link] our report about the U.S. government’s own retail operations, show that the U.S. military exchanges buy blind, without investigating the working conditions in factories that make their private-label apparel.  An extensive investigative New York Times report has also revealed unsafe and illegal conditions in overseas factories that make apparel for several U.S. federal agencies.

We assess the risk of trafficked, forced and child labor in the government’s supply chain.

Under Executive Order 13126, the Department of Labor maintains a list of products, by country of origin, which may have been made by forced or indentured child labor.  Federal contractors who supply products on this list must certify that they have made a good faith effort to determine whether forced or indentured child labor was used to produce the items.  ILRF provides research and recommendations that help the Department of Labor to maintain an accurate and up-to-date list.

We support activists to organize in their local communities.

Our SweatFree Communities (SFC) activist network advocates for government entities to adopt supply-chain labor rights and transparency standards for procurement of apparel and other products.   Local SFC activists have persuaded dozens of states, cities, counties, school districts and religious organizations to commit to buying only sweatfree products.

We advocate for better federal procurement policies.

ILRF has long advocated strengthening federal procurement policies that prohibit acquisitions of products made with forced child labor (Executive Order 13126) or trafficked labor (Executive Order 13627).  We believe the federal government should:

  1. Require contractor and subcontractor compliance with all international core labor standards, not just the prohibitions on forced child labor and human trafficking.
  2. Go beyond contractor “self-certification,” and require tougher human rights due diligence procedures, including independent and objective compliance reports.
  3. Insist on supply chain transparency.  The federal government must have access to factory names and addresses in its supply chain, as well as social audits conducted by contractors or subcontractors.
  4. Establish an interagency group to facilitate agency compliance by coordinating and overseeing supply chain investigations and information sharing, establishing a shared system for evaluating contractor compliance, and providing guidance and trainings for contracting officers.
  5. Make sure that its purchasing practices support labor rights compliance down the supply chain.   The government should be aware that low bid awards and last minute changes to orders can jeopardize social responsibility. The government should pay a fair price that covers the full cost of production in compliance with all legal requirements, and use long-term contracts that enable suppliers to plan and spread out production, avoiding production peaks that cause forced overtime.

We help to network and coordinate procurement officials.

ILRF helped build the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium, a vital collaboration of U.S. city and state governments and other public entities to ensure that publicly procured apparel and other products are manufactured in decent working conditions. The Consortium’s primary product is Sweatfree LinkUp!, an on-line database that sheds light on the supply chains behind the products that government agencies buy and fosters the transparency necessary for a reliable labor rights compliance system.