St. Louis Military Contractor Fails to Pay Sick Days to Low-Wage Workers
Puerto Rico law requires 12 sick days annually; DOD says it will look into workers’ claims
New York – St. Charles, Missouri-based Propper International, the largest military apparel manufacturer in the U.S., does not pay sick days to its workers. According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, Tom Kellim, Propper’s chief executive, did not deny that the company fails to give workers the sick days required by Puerto Rico Law 180.
In Puerto Rico, where approximately 6,000 workers manufacture U.S. military apparel, many workers do not receive Law 180’s mandated paid time off for both sick days and vacation days. Under Puerto Rico law, employees are to receive 12 sick days and 15 vacation days each year. Propper also fails to pay sufficient vacation days under Law 180, which has been on the books for ten years.
Kellim asserts that Propper follows a local government decree exempting the apparel industry from Law 180’s requirements. But the article also said that, according to legal experts, the decree applied, if at all, only to workers hired before August 1, 1995. Moreover, the law provides that, in industries previously covered by weaker decrees, employers would be required to pay the benefits set by Law 180 as soon as they are economically able to do so. And the federally patronized military apparel industry has been economically able to pay these benefits for a long time since the law’s 1998 passage.
“Military apparel workers provide a valuable service to our country by keeping our soldiers supplied and outfitted, yet many of these workers work in sweatshop conditions and struggle to survive,” said UNITE HERE General President Bruce Raynor. “Propper and other contractors in Puerto Rico have specifically chosen to manufacture there because it is the cheapest location and provides them with the highest profit margin compared to the rest of the country. Military uniform manufacturers that operate in Puerto Rico are fully capable of providing their workers with benefits in accordance with Puerto Rican law. It is time that they pay the same sick and vacation leave as other industries there.”
Elsewhere in the article, Kellim said the company’s pay and benefits were “equal to or better than the competition.” This assertion does not hold up when Propper is compared with an important competitor, Selma, Alabama-based American Apparel, Inc. The federal government pays Propper and American Apparel comparable amounts to manufacture comparable garments. And yet, Propper workers get no retirement benefits and many report earning around the federal minimum wage – $6.55 per hour. By comparison, American Apparel, Inc. provided UNITE HERE with data in June 2008 showing that the median hourly wage of its workers in Alabama is $9.18. Additionally, those workers receive retirement benefits.
A spokesperson for the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), part of the Department of Defense (DOD), said in the article that the DLA would contact labor officials to learn more about the workers’ claims.
“I hope that the DLA is serious about investigating the compliance of its contractors,” said Raynor. “The workers doing these jobs for our men and women in uniform in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world deserve nothing less.”
In 2007, the DOD spent $4 billion on apparel and textiles to supply U.S. soldiers. Under federal law, all military apparel and textile items are required to be manufactured in the U.S., making the DOD the world’s largest consumer of U.S.-made apparel. In recent years, there has been an increasing movement of military apparel contractors to Puerto Rico. Low wages, no federal corporate income tax, and other government subsidies and incentives have made Puerto Rico the low-cost place to go for military uniform contractors while remaining in the U.S.
These contractors manufacture combat uniforms, dress uniforms, body armor, backpacks, tactical gear, chemical protective garments, tents, gloves, and footwear.