4. American Sweatshops Sew U.S. Military Uniforms

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Title An American Sweatshop
Source Mother Jones, May/June 1999
Author Mark Boal
Faculty Evaulator Sally Hurtado
Student Researcher Jaime Foster

The Department of Defense (DoD) has $1 billion invested in the garment industry, making it the country’s fourteenth largest retail apparel outlet. Lion Apparel contracts with the DoD to produce military uniforms, yet the company’s workplace conditions are dismal and remain virtually unregulated by the U.S. government. Lion employees are mostly women who are paid as little as $5.50 per hour. According to records obtained by Mother Jones, through a Freedom of Information request, OSHA cited Lion Apparel 32 times for safety and health violations in the past 12 years. Employees in a Kentucky plant are subjected to formaldehyde fumes that cause shortness of breath, headaches, and skin rashes. Efforts to unionize workers have failed because, union leaders claim, the company managed to evade a federal law prohibiting the threat of plant closures. The military continues to refuse to sign the garment industry’s anti-sweatshop code of conduct. Despite the coverage provided by this article, the author estimates that there are still 10,000 American women sewing government uniforms, often in unsanitary, unsafe conditions

Coverage 2000

There has been no direct news follow-up of this story aside from some brief local coverage when the city council of Bangor, Maine, deliberated on whether or not to purchase its fire department uniforms from Lion Apparel. Their decision, as it turned out, was directly influenced by information in Boal’s Mother Jones article.

Otherwise it’s been business-almost-as-usual at Lion Apparel. Three months after Boal’s article appeared, Lion was awarded a DOD contract twice the size of its previous one. This new 10-year, $110 million contract is Lion’s largest yet with the DOD. Lion, in conjunction with Vallen Corporation, will “manage procurement, inventory logistics, and distribution for military recruit clothing” for the military’s entire Southeast region. A Lion VP made it clear that “the company will not manufacture the clothes, nor will it have control over who the DOD chooses as its supplier.” Instead, Lion/Vallen will perform supply chain management.

Mysteries remain over Lion’s denial of the original Mother Jones allegations. Lion’s Richard Lapedes claims that Lion Apparel is one of the most progressive companies in the country, and paints a workplace picture far different from the one described by the Lion employees Boal interviewed. But Boal documented Lion’s 32 OSHA citations in 12 years, eight times as many as those received by other contractors during the same period. The Bangor City Council found Lion’s average wage to be $8/hour compared to another company’s $13/hour. Although Lion explicitly states that it is not a manufacturer in their newest DOD contract, they still have their old Air Force contract as well as a new USDA Forest Service uniform contract. Also, in refuting Boal’s story, Lion had asserted that it now manufactures only fire protection clothing, and that they have not manufactured military uniforms in decades. Yet Lion continued to represent itself as a “manufacturer of government uniforms” as recently as early 1999.

The DOD’s procurement practices are themselves questionable. For instance, Federal Prison Industries (FPI), the federally mandated supplier for government agencies, is taking a big bite of the market share of the apparel manufacturing industry, especially those companies that produce uniforms and personal issue items for the U.S. military. FPI is currently the largest supplier of textiles and apparel to the DOD. But the DOD’s procurement practices have recently come under fire. A New York Times article reported on the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) procurement of large quantities of apparel from Chentex, a suspected Nicaraguan sweatshop operation. Several members of Congress questioned such acquisitions, and U.S. labor-rights groups have mounted an intense campaign against further procurement. In light of such criticism, AAFES sent officials to Nicaragua to examine the Chentex operation. According to a spokesman, representatives found no problems.

News articles have appeared this year regarding the “frayed, patched, and obsolete gear” that servicemen are still being issued. Despite a $287.8 billion defense budget, soldiers are obliged to buy equipment themselves on an annual clothing allowance of only $255.60. This in turn forces them to purchase needed items from the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA).

SOURCES: Small Business News, January 1, 1999; PR Newswire, September 10, 1999; Dayton Daily News, October 9, 1999; Bobbin, January 1, 2000; Bangor Daily News, February 7 & July 4, 2000; Commerce Business Daily, June 27, 2000; The San Diego Union-Tribune, August 30, 2000; The New York Times, December 3, 2000.