President Obama is hailing The Gap Inc. for raising wages in the U.S., even though the firm has a spotty record when it comes to selling apparel made in sweatshops halfway around the world.
Mr. Obama made a point of shopping at a Gap store in New York City last week to highlight the company's decision to pay American workers more than the federal minimum wage. It's part of the president's election-year effort to pressure congressional Republicans to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour and to motivate Democrats to go to the polls in November.
Human rights groups have singled out The Gap for a different reason. They say the company sometimes has used contractors that exploit overseas laborers sewing garments that are sold in the U.S.
The Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights called out The Gap and Old Navy in October for selling garments made in a sweatshop in Bangladesh run by the Ha-Meem Group, where workers routinely are forced to work 100 hours per week and are shortchanged on wages that average less than 25 cents per hour.
"For the last 2½ years, Gap has been complicit with Next Collections/Ha-Meem Group in a scam to defraud the workers of their legal wages and benefits," said the nonprofit watchdog group based in Pittsburgh.
Another group, United Students Against Sweatshops, has criticized The Gap for failing to complete a comprehensive inspection and renovation program at its Bangladeshi factories that the firm announced it would implement in September 2012.
A spokesman for USAS, Garrett Shishido Strain, said Mr. Obama's promotion of The Gap is disappointing.
"President Obama should look deeper before praising a company that continues to endanger Bangladeshi garment workers," Mr. Strain said. "We're glad to see Gap raise wages for U.S. workers, but disheartened that the company still doesn't respect Bangladeshi workers enough to guarantee them basic safety in the workplace. Gap has a sharp eye for smart political moves at home, but no respect for garment workers abroad."
An administration official didn't respond to an inquiry about the president's support of The Gap in light of its record on sweatshops.
Administration officials have said they pressure companies such as The Gap and Wal-Mart to demand better working conditions in foreign factories that manufacture their products. The Labor Department said it has a zero-tolerance policy for using overseas plants that break local laws.
Mr. Obama cut off U.S. trade benefits for Bangladesh in June in a mostly symbolic response to dangerous conditions in that country's garment industry.
"I have determined that it is appropriate to suspend Bangladesh because it is not taking steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights to workers in the country," Mr. Obama said at the time.
The sanction did not apply to Bangladesh's roughly $4 billion in annual clothing exports to the U.S., but to certain other exports. Mr. Obama made the move in the wake of the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh in April 2013 that killed 1,129 people, and a factory fire in November 2012 that killed 112.
Bangladesh is the second-largest exporter of apparel in the world, after China. Its minimum wage of about $37 a month is the lowest in the world.
The Gap has tried periodically to rebuild its image after a series of sweatshop scandals. After reports that the company used child labor in India, The Gap took steps to ensure that workshops producing its clothing there didn't employ children.
The Gap "is engaged in several broad initiatives where we work with governments, workers and other stakeholders to improve working conditions across our supply chain," the company said on its website. In 2013, the firm said, it partnered with 20 other retailers to improve conditions in Bangladesh's garment industry through the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
The group issued a report last month stating that garment workers in Bangladesh show "considerable gaps in their knowledge and awareness of fire safety." Nearly 30 percent of the teenage workers reported that factory security guards sometimes lock exits.
The report made several nonbinding suggestions, such as better worker training.
The Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights said the Next Collections factory in Ashulia, Bangladesh, where about 70 percent of production is for The Gap and Old Navy, forces employees to work shifts of at least 14 hours, seven days a week.
"Physical punishment and illegal firings are the norm," the group said in a report. "Pregnant women are illegally terminated and denied their legal paid maternity leave."
The nonprofit consumer group GreenAmerica.org, which promotes socially responsible shopping, said The Gap has more work to do.
"While The Gap has made some progress toward becoming a more sustainable company, such as promoting diversity and encouraging community involvement, the company has a long way to go before it can be considered socially responsible," the group said.
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