By Jack Mahoney

President Obama has recently taken some steps in the right direction on labor issues. But he needs to go much further.

He was correct to issue an executive order raising wages for federal contractors to $10.10 per hour. He also appropriately in his State of the Union address called for a minimum wage increase for all U.S. workers.

But the U.S. government has a profound responsibility to raise wages and working conditions for federal contractors abroad, too -- or at least to avoid contributing to sweatshops overseas.

The president said that "if you cook for our troops' food or wash their dishes, you should not live in poverty." But what if you sew their clothes and live in Bangladesh or Haiti? Does that make it fair to work in deadly conditions for pennies a day?

So far, the U.S. government has done little to use its own leverage as the world's largest buyer of clothes, according to a recent investigation by The New York Times. In fact, some federal agencies, including the Defense Department, blocked congressional efforts to increase safety in these factories, the Times found.

The past year was a deadly one for the people who cut and sew our clothes. More than 1,200 of these garment workers died in fires and factory collapses in Bangladesh. Hundreds of others have been arrested, beaten or shot while protesting for higher wages in Cambodia, Vietnam and elsewhere in the world.

The Obama Administration has pressured private clothing companies like Gap and Walmart to use their purchasing power to force factory owners in Bangladesh and elsewhere to make working conditions safer and to pay better.

Yet U.S. government suppliers routinely break local labor laws across the globe, including in Cambodia, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico and Vietnam. Some of the factories that supply the American government were found to be paying workers less than the minimum wage. In Haiti, workers were illegally paid only 72 cents per hour. Some Cambodian workers were as young as 15.

Uncle Sam's dependence on sweatshops has particular resonance in Latin America. Free trade policies, many of them pushed by the Obama Administration, are bringing more sweatshops to Mexico and Honduras, where workers sew uniforms for federal agencies for a couple dollars a day.

For instance, over most of the past decade, several thousand workers at a factory in Torreon, Mexico, have made the majority of the uniforms worn by the airport security guards in the United States who wand us before we fly. In a particularly dark irony, many of the uniforms worn by U.S. border patrol agents are made at the same factory.

Bolstering wages for American workers while using tax dollars to subsidize sweatshops overseas is neither ethical nor practical.

Obama needs to go further and end the federal government's reliance on sweatshop labor.

Jack Mahoney is technical advisor and regional organizer in Latin America for the International Union League for Brand Responsibility. He can be reached at

Copyright Jack Mahoney.

Photo: De Visu /


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Forty years ago the UN General Assembly passed a resolution against "hostile environmental modification techniques...

The beauty and the tragedy of everyday life in a war zone.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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