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Practice What You Preach: How the US Government Can End Bangladesh's Factory Fires

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On Monday, the US Department of State issued a bold new statement urging US companies to do more to protect workers in Bangladesh. This attention comes in the wake of the tragic Tazreen factory fire in November 2012 that killed over 100 workers. Many of these workers leapt to their deaths from a building with no emergency exits. The factory was exposed throughout world media as producing goods for Walmart, Disney, Sears and Ikea.

Would it surprise you to learn that the factory was used by companies who make federal uniforms? Labor rights organizations were able to photograph labels in the factory wreckage linking Tazreen to two US government contractors.

The US government is an enormous consumer of apparel worldwide. According to SweatFree Communities the federal government procures over $500 billion in goods and services annually. Fully 25 percent of all US government employees wear some sort of uniform. SweatFree Communities estimates that federal, state and city governments spend $10 billion on clothing each year.

Military exchanges add even more volume to this picture. Military exchanges sell approximately $1.5 billion in clothing and footwear each year. And today, Bangladesh is the number one producer of this apparel.

The US government can practice what it preaches. It can lead the way in demonstrating a strong approach to protecting workers in uniform supplier factories worldwide. Here is what the US government can do to adhere to its own eight point plan:

1. Act Collectively:

Even the US government cannot go it alone. Europe sources a lot of clothing from Bangladesh, too- and provides a lot of aid to the country. Collaborate with international donors to pull in the same direction, and make sure aid dollars are used to ensure the Government of Bangladesh strengthens fire safety inspections in the factories, and strengthens legal remedies for workers who are affected by the tragic fires.

2. Develop Principles, Policies and Procedures for Implementation

Federal government contractors need to know what's required of them. Implement contract standards for foreign production facilities that cover international labor standards, including freedom of association, forced labor, child labor, non-discrimination; and strong health and safety protections.

3. Develop Credible Internal Benchmarks

Contract officers can ensure they are only awarding contracts to bidders who uphold the labor principles. We recommend a vendor prequalification program that rewards vendors who have a plan to ensure that their factories comply with the standards. A point system for vendor participation in a Responsible Manufacturer Program is one way to do this.

4. Independent Third-Party Verification

States and cities around the country have already started to use a Consortium for the necessary independent oversight over their apparel contracts. Federal government agencies also need to pool resources and create or join a truly independent oversight body to verify that contractor compliance plans are really being implemented.

5. Corrective Actions and Penalties

The US government needs to demonstrate to other buyers that when you find a problem, the best approach isn't simply to 'cut and run.' While contractors need to know that there will be sanctions if they do not comply with the policies, they also need to know that federal agencies will reward companies that immediately develop a remediation plan and correct violations in the factories.

6. Cultivate Worker Voice and Education

States and cities are already encouraging their contractors to work with trusted, local, community-based organizations to provide training to factory workers. The goal is to make improvements sustainable by giving workers a way to be a part of the solution.

7. Share Information

Transparency will be the key to the success of any approach. The US government needs to urge the Bangladesh government and all companies sourcing in Bangladesh to transparently share information about factory inspections, penalties and remediation plans and their implementation - and needs to commit to having its own contractors do the same.

8. Work with Stakeholders

The US government can lead the way- but cannot end sweatshops in Bangladesh on its own. Major brands sourcing clothing in Bangladesh need to follow the US government lead, instead of each staking out their own approach. The numerous private monitoring and certification groups that have crowded this space in recent years need to get out of the way, and recognize that competing for brands' business in Bangladesh will not help to solve the bigger challenges. They need to cede the space to the US government here. Consumer-facing advocacy groups need to provide consumers with information about which companies are following the leader, and which are refusing to play. And international NGOs and trade unions need to support community leaders within Bangladesh, and especially among workers themselves--since real change in Bangladesh will only happen when Bangladesh's own citizens demand it, and keep the pressure on their own government to sustain it.

Bama Athreya is a founding Board member of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium