Some House Republicans Start To Wake Up On Wage Theft

06/20/2014 03:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2014
NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- A growing number of House Republicans agree with their Democratic colleagues that the federal government needs to stop giving contracts to companies that rip off their workers.

Late Thursday, progressives successfully passed an amendment to the House defense spending bill that would bar the Defense Department from granting contracts to firms that have a record of wage theft. GOP support for the measure was far from overwhelming, but the 25 Republicans who crossed the aisle to join Democrats were crucial to the amendment's passage.

A similar amendment passed on a voice vote last week during debate over the transportation and housing spending bill. The first time Democrats tried to attach such an amendment to a spending bill it failed, with only 10 Republicans voting to add it to the funding bill for commerce, justice and science.

"Sometimes, federal contractors who serve the federal government do not pay these workers… I'm here to tell you that it is a serious problem," Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and sponsor of the amendment, said on the House floor late Thursday. "Republicans can agree that if you are a federal contractor and you want to do business with the United States, you should be fair to your workers."

The amendment forbids federal dollars from going to companies that have wage theft convictions or civil penalties reported in the government's contracting database. The two measures that have passed so far stand a good chance of being approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate, though they would only apply to the agencies covered under their respective appropriations bills.

Ellison said earlier this week that he plans on asking the White House to issue an executive order that includes such language for all federal contracts.

"We can demonstrate that good standards at the workplace is what the federal government wants," Ellison said on a call with reporters. "We're going to prioritize those companies that have a good record, and we're going to exclude companies that don't have a good record."

Liberals have long maintained that the federal government can help set higher labor standards in the private sector by exerting its contracting power. As part of that strategy, President Barack Obama has recently decided to move forward with a handful of orders related to the workplace, including a $10.10 minimum wage and new LGBT protections for workers under federal contracts.

Progressives would like to see the president go further. In a new report issued this week, the think tank Demos found that 8 million workers -- most of them women -- currently have low-wage jobs funded through federal contracts. The report called for a comprehensive "good jobs" executive order that would raise labor standards in contracting by reaffirming collective bargaining rights, mandating living wages and sick leave and putting caps on executive compensation.

"[W]e have largely overlooked what may be the most effective untapped resource for creating good jobs and growing the middle class -- our federal purchasing footprint," the report stated.

There's already evidence that wage theft is a legitimate problem among government contractors, not to mention the economy at large. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, released an analysis in December finding that "many of the most flagrant violators of federal workplace safety and wage laws are also recipients of large federal contracts."

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