WASHINGTON -- Concerned it may undermine their own response to recent factory disasters and cost them business, U.S. clothing makers pressured the Senate to spike a provision in this year's military spending bill that would have promoted a plan to improve labor standards in Bangladesh.
The measure, tucked into versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, would have required so-called exchange stores on military bases to give preferential treatment to suppliers that sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement between clothing brands, labor groups and non-governmental organizations in the wake of the Rana Plaza clothing factory collapse, which claimed 1,129 lives last year. The amendment was ultimately left out of the defense spending bill that recently landed on President Barack Obama's desk.
For the provision's backers, the events on Capitol Hill made for a rare and disappointing turn of events. The measure survived a vote in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives in June, only to die later in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where such a labor-backed amendment would normally stand better odds. The measure was championed by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) in the Senate and Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) in the House.
The military exchanges may be small business compared with the U.S. retail industry as a whole, but the Democrats' proposal was significant both practically and symbolically. As The New York Times' Ian Urbina reported in an investigative article last month, plenty of federal agencies don't practice what American officials have been preaching when it comes to the ethical sourcing of clothing. Several facilities from which the U.S. government has purchased garments on the cheap have been complicit in labor abuses discovered in workplace audits.
In the eyes of its crafters, the amendment had a simple underlying message: Markets sanctioned and supported by the U.S. government should be shut off from sweatshop labor.
But in endorsing the accord, the provision ran into opposition from the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a new consortium of mostly U.S. retailers that differs from the accord in key ways. Spearheaded by Gap, Walmart and other retailers that rely on cheap overseas production, the alliance has pledged more than $40 million toward safety, as well as $100 million in low-cost loans to help improve factories. But it does not put members on the hook legally for safety problems in Bangladeshi facilities the way the accord does, nor does it formally include labor unions as stakeholders.
While alliance members have stressed that they share the same safety goals as the accord, labor groups and safety watchdogs have criticized the alliance as a form of corporate self-monitoring with little worker involvement.
If passed, the amendment on military exchanges would have been an embarrassment to the alliance, since Congress would have essentially endorsed the accord as a stronger approach to improving safety in Bangladesh. It also would have pressured companies whose clothes are sold in the exchanges to consider joining the accord or face losing business. Alliance leaders asked senators to either insert language putting them on equal footing with the accord or to strip out the accord altogether.
In a joint letter to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, some of the largest retail and clothing lobbies in the U.S. took a patriotic tack in their argument against the provision -- a strategy that would ultimately prove effective on the Hill. They claimed that endorsing the "European" accord in such a way would undermine the primarily "American" alliance that shared the same concerns in Bangladesh.
"The amendments would in effect give a preference to European companies over American companies, even though American companies have demonstrated the same commitment to improving worker safety in Bangladesh," the letter stated. "Congress should embrace all meaningful efforts to improve worker safety in Bangladesh and elsewhere." The letter was signed by the National Retail Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders of America, the American Apparel & Footwear Association and the United States Fashion Industry Association.
The retailers' argument later turned up in a letter sent by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which produced the military spending bill. Corker said he would be "concerned" if the final bill "contained language that would require preference for European companies over U.S. companies."
The accord is European only insofar as most American retailers declined to join it out of liability concerns. A handful of U.S. companies, including PVH, the parent company to the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands, bucked the trend and signed the accord anyway, earning high praise from workplace safety advocates.
Rob Wayss, head of operations in Bangladesh for the accord, bristled at the designation of the accord as "European."
"This is not a European initiative," Wayss told HuffPost. "There are now 132 brands that come from all over the world -- Japan, Europe, the U.S., Canada. It's wrongfully being portrayed as a European initiative. I don't know what the politics would be, but it's simplistic and inaccurate.
"The accord has teeth that the alliance simply does not have," Wayss added. "The accord is a transformational agreement. The alliance is a modified version of the monitoring and auditing and corporate social responsibility that have been employer-led and executed and not rigorous enough."
Ellen Tauscher, the former Democratic congresswoman and State Department official who now serves as the alliance chair, told HuffPost that the provision would have prioritized European businesses over American ones. She also rued that differences between the alliance and the accord were being played up.
"It's not about them or us," Tauscher said. "This is about materially changing the workplace safety for Bangladesh garment workers so that they don't have to risk their lives to go to work. There are some whose agenda is to create conflict between the alliance and the accord when there is none. ... There should be great agreement among everyone that Bangladesh's government has not done enough to protect workers."
The exchanges have retail stores on U.S. military bases throughout the world, selling everything from toiletries and electronics to shoes and apparel, some of it branded with U.S. military logos. The amendment would have required that exchanges selling their own military-branded garments from Bangladesh either join or otherwise "abide by" the accord, and that they give preference to accord members for other clothes stocked on the shelves.
According to congressional staffers, the Army-Air Force, Navy and Marine exchanges all voiced concerns about the amendment. After the House passed its version of the spending bill, representatives of those exchanges met with the offices of Miller and Schakowsky. According to one staffer, the exchanges were "decidedly unhappy."
Miller and Schakowsky laid out their moral argument in a letter to the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, or AAFES. They ticked off a list of dangers and abuses found in an audit of one exchange supplier, including windows being barred and workers being pressured not to unionize.
"We are confident that the AAFES shares our view that it is inconsistent with our values as a nation for our military exchanges to be marketing clothes that are produced in death traps," Miller and Schakowsky wrote.
A spokesman for the Army and Air Force Exchange told HuffPost in an email that the exchange "understands the importance of social responsibility and adheres to Department of Defense regulations concerning private label merchandise." He also said the exchange "does not advocate for or against proposed legislation."
Nonetheless, Gregg Cox, an officer with AAFES, told a congressional staffer in an email viewed by HuffPost that he believed the provision would not help Bangladeshi workers and would raise costs for the exchanges. Cox argued that the provision would simply lead the exchanges to look at cheaper alternatives, hurting the very garment workers in Bangladesh that everyone meant to help.
"The amendment will do nothing to improve safety, because we will not purchase from Bangladesh," Cox wrote. "If passed and we don't buy in Bangladesh, how will it improve safety?" Despite his obvious concerns with the amendment, Cox said the exchange couldn't take a formal position on it.
With some Senate Democrats sympathetic to retailers and the exchanges, the amendment's backers were faced with either scrapping the measure entirely or watering it down to a point where they felt it was meaningless. They chose the former. Obama signed the bill into law after Christmas.
"What they wanted us to do was essentially give everyone a total out," said one source.
Levin's staff didn't respond to requests for comment.