Levi’s is at the center of a new pressure campaign from human rights watchdog Remake ahead of New York Fashion Week.
The campaign asks Levi’s to sign onto a legally binding worker safety agreement, citing worker testimonies as new evidence.
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“It was very deliberate in terms of the timing, right on Labor Day and the heels of fashion week,” Remake founder Ayesha Barenblat told WWD. “We never campaign in a vacuum in the West, it’s a worker-led movement and we let them lead…We always engage with brands behind the scenes, and we made the case for why it made sense [to center] Levi’s,” she continued, saying Levi’s strong supplier presence in Bangladesh and Pakistan as well as public commitment to well-being and worker safety necessitated a closer look after worker testimony.
Announced Monday and running through Sept. 11, Remake’s campaign is in partnership with the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, representing 70,000 female garment workers in Bangladesh, as well as the Labor Education Foundation in Pakistan. As part of the grassroots campaign, Remake said its online network has sent over 1,700 emails directing brands like Levi’s, Denizen and Dockers (both owned by Levi’s) to sign onto binding safety agreements like the Bangladesh Accord-successor agreement the International Accord. Already, the International Accord counts 176 brand signatories, including Tommy Hilfiger, Uniqlo, Zara, Adidas and H&M.
Remake coalition members are protesting at Levi’s stores in more than 14 cities, including Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., London and Delhi, to urge dialogue with store managers on workplace safety and the importance of the International Accord.
In a series of worker video testimonies that WWD reviewed (names and factories were omitted for worker safety), the workers listed concerns like extreme heat, lack of machine safety protocols, wage theft, verbal and physical abuse. The testimonies were recorded as part of a monthly touchbase that Remake and other labor rights groups conduct behind closed doors. The collaborative conversation is meant to allow union leaders, activists and workers a safe space to voice their concerns and the format even anchored viral campaigns like #PayUp.
“I work as a cutting operator for a factory producing for Levi’s and Adidas,” one worker said in the testimony. “Recently a forklift at the factory malfunctioned and a worker broke his leg. Management sent him home. Some years back there was a fire in a factory in Karachi [Pakistan], many workers died and there was no compensation. We workers are suffering because of a lack of safety measures.” (To note, Adidas is an International Accord signatory, but Remake did not center the brand in its campaign).
Another worker who is a machine operator for brands including Levi’s-owned Denizen and Dockers said safety measures are lacking, and machine guards are unavailable, as is access to clean or cold water. The worker claimed abuse, worker-incurred injury costs and forced overtime is commonplace.
Others, as in one quality inspector for Levi’s and SGSF union member, echoed the subpar safety measures, claiming that: “Workers at the factory suffer from extreme heat but are denied treatment from the factory’s doctor. Our production manager does not allow us to seek medical treatment. We are forced to work beyond our quotas, with our managers often overworking us. Even when we meet our targets, they mistreat us. Sometimes they beat us and often use abusive words toward us. When workers make even a tiny mistake, management punishes us immediately.”
Sourcing from more than 40 countries, Levi’s documents health and safety violations in its 300-page sustainability guidebook and coinciding annual reports. The concerns raised by Remake and in the worker testimonies violate the company’s policy but are not the first documented occurrence. WWD reached out to Levi’s for comment on the matter and a company spokesperson pointed back to previous statements on the issue and the programs in place.
“At Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.) we believe that workers who make our products should work in a safe and healthy environment and be treated with dignity and respect. We have therefore long been invested in strengthening safety policies across our supply chain. In 1991, we were the first multinational company to introduce a comprehensive supplier code of conduct, our Terms of Engagement, which prioritized worker safety, including annual fire safety assessments. Over the past 30 years we have continued to put our resources behind efforts that will make the biggest difference for the workers in our supply chain, adapting our policies and practices as needed.”