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US military uniforms made in sweatshops
Updated: 2006-03-15 09:53

WASHINGTON - American military uniforms are being made under substandard working conditions in domestic sweatshops that the Pentagon is failing to police, an apparel workers union said on Tuesday.

Most workers who make the uniforms worn by American soldiers are paid below poverty-level wages, have no health coverage or retirement plans and are forced to rely on government aid, the union, Unite Here, said in a report.

"It's unconscionable that taxpayer dollars are being used to support sweatshops," Unite Here Executive Vice President Edgar Romney told a news conference. "But that's exactly what's happening."

The report, "Conduct Unbecoming: Sweatshops and the U.S. Military Uniform Industry," found the average hourly wage at eight uniform manufacturers with government contracts to be $6.55 and the average starting wage to be $5.49. The federal minimum wage is $5.15, while the poverty threshold wage for a family of three is $7.74.

With low pay and employer health care either unavailable or beyond the reach of most of the workers, who are predominantly female African-American sewing machine operators, they must rely on government health care and food assistance, the report said. The government assistance costs taxpayers $45 million a year, it said.

The eight manufacturers, located mostly in southeastern states, did a combined $456 million of business with the Pentagon in the last three years and have been cited for numerous health, safety and labor law violations, it said.

The Defense Department spends more than $2 billion a year on uniforms and textile products that it buys from hundreds of small firms that by law must be located in the United States and that employ 20,000 workers, the report said.

"We think that it's important that we urge our government to take the high road in awarding these contracts," said Romney.

Unite Here President Bruce Raynor said the union, which represents workers in the apparel, hotel, restaurant and laundry industries, decided to go public with its findings only after Pentagon officials refused to discuss the matter.

A spokesman at the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency did not return phone calls.


Raynor, who said the union is trying to organize workers at at least one of the manufacturers, said Pentagon procurement policies put unionized manufacturers at a disadvantage.

He said he would urge lawmakers to call on the Pentagon to deny contracts to companies that have violated laws, fail to provide benefits and pay below poverty-level wages.

"When you take shortcuts with the workers, you take shortcuts with the quality," he said.

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