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Analysis: Obama’s executive order protects workers from ‘outlaw’ contractors

This week, corporate lobbyists are swarming Capitol Hill to persuade Republican U.S. Senators to gut one of President Obama’s most important achievements for American workers — the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order.

The purpose of the order should be uncontroversial. The order requires that companies seeking publicly funded contracts report any record of violating workers’ rights on the job — so that ethical employers are not subject to unfair competition from those who cut corners by illegally cheating American workers. As Obama explained at the White House signing ceremony on July 31, 2014, “Taxpayer dollars should not reward companies that break the law.”

However, the Professional Services Council — the lobby organization for major government contractors — finds this simple directive objectionable, arguing that the order is unnecessary because it “falsely presumes that there is little or no oversight of contractors’ compliance with labor laws.”

In other words, these lobbyists claim that the U.S. procurement system already has enough safeguards in place to protect workers from unscrupulous contractors.

The facts show the opposite. In fact, the largest federal contractor at the U.S. Capitol itself has been breaking the law literally under their noses of our elected officials.

Over the past year, Good Jobs Nation — a group representing 2 million low-wage employees of federal contractors — filed multiple legal complaints on behalf of cooks and cleaners at the Senate and Capitol dining halls, aiming to recover stolen wages and stop illegal retaliation for exercising their right to organize a union.

These employees — who serve U.S. Senators and their staff every day — include Bertrand Olotara, a cook who had to rely on food stamps to feed his children because he was underpaid, and Anthony Thomas, a cleaner and new father, who was told that he would never be promoted because of his involvement in the “Fight for $15.”

Contract “outlaws” are not, of course, limited to Capitol Hill.

Since 2013, Good Jobs Nation has filed more than 30 legal complaints on behalf of 500 workers documenting systemic wage theft, misclassification, and other labor law violations at the Pentagon, theRonald Reagan Building the Smithsonian Museums, and other federal offices in Washington, D.C. And just last week, a National Labor Relations Board investigation revealed that the Pentagon’s biggest food service contractor threatened and intimidated workers for exercising their right to organize. To add insult to injury, the Pentagon fast food workers also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor to stop rampant wage theft.

While these workers serve senators, members of Congress, and agency staff, their employers have stolen an estimated $5 million dollars from employee paychecks, and have repeatedly violated health and safety regulations and labor law, according to legal complaints filed by Good Jobs Nation.

National research shows that illegal activity by taxpayer-funded corporations is a national epidemic.

U.S. Senate report revealed that federal contractors were responsible for nearly one-third of the largest U.S. Department of Labor penalties for wage theft.  In 2012, 42 workers died on the job as a result OSHA violations by federally-funded contractors. Furthermore, because of lax oversight and enforcement, a Government Accountability Office analysis showed that known violators have continued to receive lucrative federal contracts.

Given this track record of corporate malfeasance and ineffective oversight, the lobbyists for big contractors should not be allowed to rewrite the National Defense Authorization Act to exempt Department of Defense contractors from the purview of the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order.

If they succeed, the big businesses bank-rolled by U.S. taxpayers dollars will essentially be leaving hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers who serve our troops by sewing military uniforms, preparing meals-ready-to eat, and hauling military cargo vulnerable to illegal activity.

This action would effectively nullify the executive order, as Defense procurement makes up two-thirds of all federal purchasing.

GOP senators know that the federal contractors they oversee are guilty of violating federal labor laws. It’s time they stand up for American workers and crack down on law-breakers by upholding the president’s order.

Gordon Lafer is a professor at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. He previously served as senior policy adviser to the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor.

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