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U.S. Companies' Labor Standards Are So Weak They Could Lose Military Contracts

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Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has objected to a provision in the defense bill that would give preferential treatment to companies who've signed a worker safety pact for Bangladesh. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) | Alex Wong via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- As Congress tries to hash out a military spending bill for next year, lawmakers are considering a provision that would give preferential treatment to clothing suppliers that have signed onto a historic worker safety agreement hatched in Bangladesh earlier this year.

That's where things get awkward. If the provision holds up, many U.S. companies -- including retail giants like Gap and Walmart -- in theory won't have met a labor standard deeming their labels worthy of being sold on U.S. military bases.

Right now, most U.S. clothing vendors are conspicuously absent from the international pact, known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which was established in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in April that claimed 1,129 lives. While European brands rushed to sign on, many of their American counterparts instead opted to create their own program, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which labor watchdogs have denounced as toothless and non-binding.

The GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed a spending bill earlier this year that includes an amendment on labor standards pertaining to military-branded clothing sold in base retail stores. The Senate is now considering including similar language in its bill.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) sent a letter Monday to leaders of the Armed Services Committee asking that the language be stripped out of the Senate bill. According to Corker, it would unfairly punish U.S. firms:

"I would be concerned if any provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2014 contained language that would require preference for European companies over U.S. companies, especially since it is our understanding that U.S. companies have done as much or more on the ground to fix the safety and health problems in Bangladeshi garment factories," Corker wrote.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chair of the committee, declined to comment on Corker's letter.

In a statement to HuffPost, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), one of two sponsors of the House amendment, said the purpose of the provision isn't to pit U.S. firms against European ones. He encouraged American companies to "do the right thing" and take the "higher-road approach" by signing the accord.

"Requiring the Military Exchanges to abide by the terms of the Accord, as the Marine Corps has already done, will ensure that their garment purchasing decisions will uphold our nation’s core values in both word and deed," Miller said. “Our troops defend American values every day around the world, and they deserve to know that the military-branded garments for sale at base retail stores are made by companies that are actually committed to protecting worker safety and upholding international labor rights."

Scott Nova, director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor rights monitoring group, said there's a simple solution for clothing vendors worried about losing business on military bases: Join the accord. Like Miller, Nova notes that several U.S. brands have chosen to sign on, including Abercrombie & Fitch and PVH, the parent company to Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.

"The language does not discriminate against U.S. firms, a number of which are signatories to the Accord," Nova said in an email. "The language discriminates against firms that are unwilling to make binding commitments to do what is necessary to protect the lives of workers in Bangladesh who make clothes for the U.S. government. Any U.S. firm, or any foreign firm, that wants to sell to the military exchanges knows exactly what to do –- join the majority of the world’s biggest apparel brands in signing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh."

The U.S.-led plan pledges $42 million over five years, mandates inspections of Bangladeshi factories and promotes "shared accountability" among member brands. But it is not legally binding like the European-led safety accord.

Many of the U.S. companies who declined to join the latter program cited liability concerns. For worker safety advocates, legal accountability was the whole point.