Pentagon accused of supporting sweat shop

The New York Times

An arm of the Pentagon has come under fire for procuring large quantities of apparel from a Nicaraguan factory that labor rights groups say is a sweat shop and that the U.S. trade representative has voiced serious concerns about.

Several members of Congress say it is wrong for the Pentagon agency, which runs 1,400 stores at military bases and made $7.3 billion in sales last year, to obtain apparel from the Chentex factory, which a Nicaraguan union has accused of firing more than 150 union supporters.

The U.S. trade representative, Charlene Barshefsky, warned the Nicaraguan government in October that the United States might rescind some trade benefits unless it moved to ensure that Chentex complied with labor laws.

Labor rights groups in the United States have mounted an intense campaign against Chentex, a factory with 1,800 workers that is owned by Nien Hsing Textile Co., after Nicaraguan workers accused the company of illegal firings. Many workers also complain about low pay, monitored bathroom visits, large amounts of mandatory overtime and being screamed at and occasionally hit by managers.

Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., who sits on the procurement subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, said it was wrong for one federal agency, the Pentagon, to buy large amounts of apparel from Chentex while another, the trade representative’s office, had singled out the factory for criticism.

McKinney and several other House members are working closely with a labor rights group that has obtained shipping documents showing that the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, a nonprofit Pentagon arm that runs the post exchanges, is one of the Chentex’s largest customers. Other major customers have included the retailers Wal-Mart and Kohl’s.

Fred Bluhm, a spokesman for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, said that in light of the many criticisms of Chentex, the exchange service sent officials to Nicaragua to examine the Chentex operation. "Our representative who went there found no problems," he said.

At a factory that sews 35,000 pair of jeans a day, employees earn about 20 cents for the work they put into a pair of jeans that often sell retail for $30 in the United States. The workers, in effect, demanded to be paid 8 cents more per pair.

Carlos Yin, the factory manager, said all of his workers earn at least the minimum wage, which union leaders say is set unrealistically low in developing countries in order to attract foreign investment.

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