With the new fiscal year less than a month away, Congress still hasn’t passed appropriations bills, leaving government agencies and departments reviewing orders they’ve already placed for goods and services. This trend is not new. Procurement officers are being asked to buy more with less time and less funding. This forces them to turn to countries and companies which can deliver goods in a quick turnaround time on a razor-thin margin, but have little to no respect for human rights.
When we hear about child labor, sex trafficking or factory fires that kill hundreds of workers, few of us consider the role the U.S. government plays in these atrocities. But as the largest single purchaser in the global economy, the federal government is able to leverage more than $350 billion in annual procurement spending to improve human rights conditions around the world.
The U.S. government supply chain is linked to a host of human rights abuses, ranging from child labor to human trafficking, torture to low wages. From the sweatshirts tourists pick up in the Smithsonian gift shop to the radio equipment that allows law enforcement agencies to talk with each other in natural disasters, the government is procuring goods from countries and companies that are violating human rights — and they’re doing it with American taxpayer dollars.
A report recently released by the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable found that the blind spots and gaps in laws currently on the books are favoring contractors who cut corners, not only allowing, but encouraging these human rights harms to occur. In order to turn around huge orders for electronics, uniforms, military meals ready-to-eat or to provide security or other services in the field, wages are kept low, health and safety risks abound, people are working hours that make a surgeon’s schedule look leisurely — and we continue to turn a blind eye.
This happens because government-sourcing contracts are currently being sold to the lowest bidder in a race-to-the-bottom where human rights are seldom considered. In some cases, those benefiting from contracts must certify that they have no knowledge of abuses in their supply chain, so the less they know, the better chance they have of securing taxpayer money. But this low-cost-at-any-cost mentality has real, human consequences.
In Cambodia in 2014, close to two dozen underage workers, some as young as 15, were found working at a factory that made clothes sold by our Army and Air Force. At a large IT manufacturing company that is part of the U.S. government’s supply chain for electronics, workers labored in long shifts for up to 10 days in a row. One of the workers had worked 286 hours during the month before he died. He had been working 11-hour night shifts seven days a week.
Current procurement policies don’t only affect private industry behavior. U.S. federal purchasing policies and practices also play a role in international conflicts and crisis zones.
They have serious implications for the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example. The U.S. government’s reliance on private security services has exploded, but government oversight has not kept pace with the expanded use of private contractors. Therefore, private security contractors can engage in misconduct from human trafficking, torture, violent attacks against civilians and questionable use of force with near total impunity.
A continent away, the Democratic Republic of Congo is a leading extractor and exporter of tantalum, copper, tin and gold, which are needed to produce electronic devices used by dozens of U.S. agencies. The DRC is also in the midst of a conflict between government forces and foreign-backed rebels. Both sides of the conflict are profiting from illegal trade and exploitation in the mineral sector. Units of both the national army and rebel militia groups have pillaged, extorted illegal fees from civilians, and at times, forced civilians to work for them or stop mineral production.
By continuing to secure goods through these channels, the U.S. government is funding human rights abuses with the revenue it makes from taxpayers.
The government has a responsibility to use its purchasing power to contract with companies that are not causing harm through their practices. It can start by building transparency in the supply chains of its contractors to ensure they aren’t buying from suppliers or sectors associated with human rights abuses. Just requiring suppliers to respect human rights through the same due diligence steps that are becoming the norm in the private sector would go a long way to addressing these issues.
There’s no excuse. The federal government’s annual procurement spending totals between $350 billion and $500 billion — it has the purchasing power to avoid companies that violate human rights for the sake of competition and create the market for supply chains that protect the humans that toil in them.
Amol Mehra is director of the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable.