‘Give workers an equal seat’: pressure builds for Levi’s to protect factory employees | Garment workers

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Workers and activists have been campaigning to push Levi’s, one of the world’s largest clothing brands, to sign on to an international accord for workers’ health and safety in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which housed five garment clothing factories, collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring approximately 2,500, in the deadliest disaster in the garment industry’s history.

In the wake of the incident, fashion brands signed on to an international accord that legally bound them to pay for safety inspections in the Bangladeshi garment industry, which is the second largest exporter of clothing in the world, behind China. But since 2013, numerous top clothing brands have held out on signing on to the accord and subsequent extensions.

In 2021, an expanded international accord was developed to include more safety and worker health provisions beyond fire, electrical and structural inspections and repairs of factories. It covers garment factories in Pakistan as well as Bangladesh.

The worker health and safety provisions include covering complaints of excessive overtime, lack of maternity leave, regular breaks, access to clean water and bathrooms, and workplace accidents such as heat exhaustion and injuries. It also provides a worker complaint mechanism where employees can confidentially report violations and bind signatories to supporting the complaint process.

The garment sector accounts for 84% of Bangladesh’s exports, yet workers still face a dearth of safety protections. Photograph: Mustasinur Rahman Alvi/Eyepix Group/Rex/Shutterstock

Over 170 fashion brands have signed on to the accord, including Adidas, American Eagle, Fruit of the Loom, H&M, Zara, Hugo Boss, Puma, Primark, and PVH which owns the brands Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.

The US-based non-profit Remake, in partnership with the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, which represents 70,000 female garment workers in Bangladesh, the Labour Education Foundation in Pakistan, the US-based Service Employees International Union affiliate Workers United and Netherlands-based Clean Clothes Campaign, which includes 235 worker organizations, have formed a partnership to pressure Levi’s to sign on to the accord.

“The newly expanded international accord looks beyond building safety. So it is really a lifeline and a way for workers to share any wellbeing or workplace concerns,” said Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of Remake.

She explained workers had singled out Levi’s due to its sizable presence in Pakistan and Bangladesh, which has more than 20 factories.

“We abjectly push back on the alleged effectiveness of Levi’s own safety program. The reason being that garment workers themselves have said – through Covid-19 [and] against the backdrop of the economic slowdown – their lives, and their wellbeing have simply been threatened and they do not have a direct line to the brands,” Barenblat said.

She added: “The accord gives workers an equal seat at the table. Private auditing programs do not do that and they have simply, in the last 30 years, not been effective.”

Bangladeshi garment workers complain about inadequate safety measures and a lack of access to water and medical care.
Bangladeshi garment workers complain about inadequate safety measures and a lack of access to water and medical care. Photograph: Mustasinur Rahman Alvi/Eyepix Group/Rex/Shutterstock

As part of the campaign, activists have delivered letters, sent hundreds of emails to the Levi’s board of directors, and held actions at Levi’s stores earlier this month in Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington DC, London, Delhi, Bengaluru, Dhaka and several other cities.

In testimonies provided anonymously for fear of retaliation, workers in Bangladesh who make clothing for Levi’s raised issues such as heat exhaustion, abuse from managers and forced overtime.

“We do not have much in terms of safety measures. We are not given machine guards. We do not have access to clean or cold water. It is so hot but we still have to drink hot water. People often faint due to the heat. We have no access to medical care,” said a machine operator who makes clothing for Levi’s and other brands.

They added: “We are made to work forced overtime. If there is no overtime available we are forced to work from one to one and a half hours unpaid. Our supervisors and managers treat us very badly. They verbally assault us. If we protest or push back, we are told we will be fired.”

The groups have also accused Levi’s of free-riding off the accord by using factories that are covered under the accord without signing on to it, as brands compensate for the safety inspections and oversight of the factories through the accord.

Levi’s denied and disputed all complaints from the campaign and allegations of worker safety and health issues, citing several internal programs and efforts. A Levi’s spokesperson characterized the campaign as a social media engagement ploy.

A spokesperson for Levi’s said in an email: “We agree with the intent and the spirit of the international accord and applaud the progress it has made. But it is not the only way to support workers in Bangladesh or anywhere else. We believe our programs, with their checks and balances, help us go further and give us greater agility to implement new learnings and expand our systems in other countries (which we are actively doing).”

They added: “Recognizing that there is always room for improvement, we continue to augment and expand our programs, and when we hear of facilities that are not where they should be or workers reporting grievances, we investigate those instances, mandate that our suppliers address any issues that are found, and track their progress closely to ensure compliance.”

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