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 sweatshop and about which the U.S. trade representative has voiced serious concerns.
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.
In an unusually stern letter, the U.S. trade representative, Charlene Barshefsky, warned the Nicaraguan government in October that the United States might rescind some trade benefits unless Nicaragua 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 A. McKinney, a Georgia Democrat 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 when another, the trade representative's office, had singled out the factory for criticism.
McKinney and several other House members are working 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 Chentex's largest customers. Other major customers have included retailers Wal-Mart and Kohl's.
"The United States government is the last place that should be supporting and coddling sweatshop labor and the violation of human rights," McKinney said.
Labor rights groups and several House members say the Chentex battle is important because it seeks to upgrade wages and working conditions in poor nations at a time when the United States is importing more goods than ever and U.S. companies are relocating operations to low-wage countries.
Fred Bluhm, a spokesman for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, said that in light of the criticisms, the exchange service sent officials to Nicaragua to examine the Chentex operation. "Our representative who went there found no problems," he said.
Carlos Yin, the general manager of Chentex, said in a telephone interview that his company treats its workers well. He accused the union of exaggerating problems and insisted that only 12 union supporters had been fired, all of them union leaders. He said they were dismissed legally, asserting that it was the union leaders who had broken the law by calling a one-hour work stoppage and two-day strike without the workers' approval.
"We didn't do anything wrong," Yin said. "Nicaraguan law protects the workers very strong, and we can't go against the law."
But Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, a New York-based labor rights group, said the company dismissed more than 100 union supporters after they went on strike demanding a 40 percent wage increase. At a factory that sews 35,000 pair of jeans a day, employees earn about 20 cents for the work on jeans that often sell retail for $30 in the United States.