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Hey Big Spender: Spend Our Money More Ethically

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The federal government is the largest single buyer on the global market, spending upwards of half a trillion dollars annually on goods and services. A new report by a coalition of human rights, environmental, labor, and development organizations explains how Uncle Sam can wield its immense purchasing power to curb dangerous and exploitative labor practices around the world.

This week, the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) issued the report Turning a Blind Eye? Respecting Human Rights in Government Purchasing. The report explores ways federal contract spending can be leveraged to improve the treatment of workers in the apparel, agriculture, electronics, mineral extraction, and logistical and security service sectors. (Full disclosure: the Project On Government Oversight provided comments to ICAR during the drafting of the report.)

According to the report, the government has long been accused of “turning a blind eye” to the harms that directly or indirectly result from its contracting practices, such as child labor, human trafficking, and unsafe workplaces. The government’s overriding concern for low prices and quick turnaround, combined with weak supply chain oversight and transparency, has caused a race to the bottom among global suppliers. Among the examples cited in the report:

  • Serious health and safety hazards in electronics manufacturing
  • Child and forced labor in agricultural, seafood, and mining industries
  • Human trafficking and torture of workers employed by private security contractors
  • Low wages, excessive working hours, and crackdowns on labor organizing in apparel factories

ICAR proposes ways the government can ensure that human rights are protected at all stages of the contracting process. For example, the government should consider prospective contractors’ capacity to manage their global supply chains as part of the responsibility determination and require them to disclose their suppliers, subcontractors, and factory locations. ICAR also recommends expanding the Federal Acquisition Regulation’s human rights protections and including more information about contractors’ human rights records in the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS) database.

The Obama Administration has made significant efforts in recent years to improve working conditions for its worldwide contractor workforce. A series of executive orders covering contractors have cracked down on human trafficking, established a $10.10 minimum wage, banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and most recently, required contractors to disclose their labor violations. These are steps in the right direction. However, as organizations such as ICAR make clear, much more can be done to ensure that billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars do not end up perpetuating many of the abuses in the global economy.

By: Neil Gordon
Investigator, POGO

Neil Gordon, Investigator Neil Gordon is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight. Neil investigates and maintains POGO's Federal Contractor Misconduct Database.

Topics: Contract Oversight

Related Content: Contractor Accountability, Human Trafficking, Federal Acquisition, Federal Contractor Misconduct

Authors: Neil Gordon

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