Prisoners compete for a share of 'Made in USA'
© Getty Images

"Being There" is a 1979 movie whose main character is Chauncey Gardiner. He is a simple man who obtains his knowledge by tending to a garden and watching television. Through a series of events, Chauncey is thrust into the public spotlight, where people worship every word he says.

ADVERTISEMENT

Concerned about the economy, the president of the United States asks Chauncey if the U.S. should try to stimulate growth through incentives. Chauncey can only answer with what he knows and replies: "Yes, there will be growth in the spring!" The president loves the response and praises Chauncey's good sense by adding, "that's precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill."

One can only wonder if the facts behind the whole "Made in USA" phenomenon are starting to parody the fictional government that so revered Chauncey. Except for a few superstars in Congress who have taken the time to understand the problems, many have ignored the facts surrounding the government's participation in the demise of our domestic manufacturing base.

While the issues have been present for years, they took a bizarre turn in February when President Obama signed the Trade Facilitation and Enforcement Act. This legislation gave U.S. Customs the ability to prohibit, stop and enforce a ban on products coming into the United States that have been made with forced or prison labor. The action was well received by all, and would appear to have been a move in favor of American product, but the mere enforcement of the law calls into question a huge loophole in the entire "Made in USA" discussion.

Here's the rub: Since it is now illegal to import products made with prison labor, why is it still legal to use prison labor in America? Has our own government just issued a non-compete clause for foreign prisoners, or have they issued a free pass for U.S. prison labor to compete on products that are protected under the Berry Amendment as "Made in USA"?

Chauncey the gardener would have a field day with that one. Much like his first ride in an automobile, when he commented that the view from the window "is just like television, only you can see much further."

Our federal government does, in fact, promote, allow and encourage inmates to assemble garments behind prison walls, under a growing and longstanding program called UNICOR. Prisoners earn as little as 23 cents an hour working on assembly lines, and their products often compete for business with legitimate government contractors who operate under under the Berry Amendment (a law that requires U.S. military uniforms to be made in the U.S.). These respectable American companies make apparel and footwear for many branches of the U.S. government and often use the Berry business as an anchor, to help them run their U.S. factories so they can compete in the global marketplace.

Established in 1934 and run by Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Federal Prison Industries (FPI) created UNICOR to keep prisoners busy while they are serving time, and to reduce the rate of recidivism. But anyone who thinks that these folks are just stamping license plates is simply wrong. They make a lot of products, including all types of wearable apparel.

UNICOR is a multimillion-dollar complex making various items in many locations around the U.S. They claim that inmates who participate in the program are 24 percent less likely to return to jail and 14 percent more likely to be gainfully employed. While these numbers sound great to a casual observer, the bigger picture is that five years after release, national statistics indicate 76.6 percent of prisoners released are re-arrested anyways. Bottom line, this is just a crazy situation, and a way to justify taking jobs away from domestic contractors who utilize the Berry Amendment to sell to the government and to help support their "Made in USA" efforts.

Just last October, Obama said that "if we can get this agreement [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] to my desk, then we can help our businesses sell more Made in America goods and services around the world, and we can help more American workers compete and win." What the president unfortunately didn't mention is that UNICOR is aggressively competing with domestic manufacturers by utilizing cheap prison labor, and the Department of Defense is using their services (probably in an effort to reduce the cost of their budgets). Effectively, while it may be legal, it is definitely hypocritical.

If we are planning to grow in the world of global trade, then we have to simultaneously protect our existing domestic manufacturing infrastructure. If not, then how can legitimate American factories, with American taxpaying employees, be able to stay in business and participate in this new world economy? They simple truth is that they can't, especially if our own government is working against them!

If the Berry Amendment is good for the goose, then it should be good for the gander as well. The DOD should not be able to skirt the issue with any manufactured items. The federal government should just support our domestic contractors, and not compete with them by utilizing prison labor or granting vouchers to circumvent Berry requirements.

Laws that pass through Congress are supposed to apply to everyone. It's hard to find a statute that says the federal government has the right to enforce only the regulations they choose.

It is illegal to import products that use prison labor.

(While, at the same time, it is legal to utilize U.S. prison labor to make the same exact same products that are banned as imports.)

It is a requirement that footwear be covered by the Berry amendment.

(While, at the same time, it is a fact that the DOD still grants vouchers to circumvent that requirement.)

This is just nuts. Chauncey Gardiner would agree.

Helfenbein is president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association and is a strong advocate for a robust U.S. trade agenda and for "Made in USA." He lectures frequently on the subjects of politics and international trade. Follow him on Twitter @rhelfen.