Levi Strauss & Co. announced last week that it would aggressively expand its worker well-being initiatives. The expansion is set to reach factories across Levi’s entire supply chain, as well as other brands within the global garment industry. According to the San Francisco-based company, well-being programs will reach more than 300,000 workers worldwide by 2025.
The broad program, which Levi’s calls Worker Well-Being, first started in 2011. The company shared its best practices publicly so other brands in the global fashion industry can follow suit in order to make this sector more sustainable, responsible and responsive to its employees.
This move comes as the global apparel industry continues to face criticism that it is not doing enough to respect local environmental laws and human rights, despite evidence that more brands are striving to become more sustainable and socially conscious. Guaranteeing human rights within a company’s supply chain has long been difficult as clothing companies seek to keep the costs of labor low — which correlates with an increased use of sub-contractors to manufacture clothing. This is challenge especially true in a company with such a broad reach as Levi’s, the iconic American clothing brand that closed its last U.S. factory in 2003.
Levi’s insists its outreach to these factories will have a bottom-up approach. The company says it will partner with a Harvard University program to develop a dashboard with the lofty aim of gauging what employees at various factories need in order to be both healthy and engaged. This initiative will also survey workers to understand what their most important needs are, which could range from healthcare to gender equality to financial literacy.
The company has already produced fact sheets it says demonstrate the pressing local needs, and how Levi’s and its partners will address those challenges. Employee health needs in Bangladesh, for example, include no-cost reproductive health and family planning services; awareness and education about various diseases are the priorities in Vietnam. When it comes to financial programs, Cambodian workers asked for financial literacy programs and classes; in India, workers wanted ATM access and access to other conventional banking services. Training programs on gender equality and preventing harassment on the job are the norm at many of Levi’s factories in both Cambodia and Bangladesh.
All of these programs combined will help the company produce 80 percent of its items in these “worker well-being” factories within 10 years, Levi’s says. The company now assesses its vendors by ranking them within three different tiers. “Compliant” vendors simply meet basic legal and sustainability requirements. “Independent” vendors have more stringent management and compliance systems in place. “Model” vendors, however, are more proactive when it comes to sustainability and going beyond the ethical treatment of workers – and those are the vendors that can make robust “worker well-being” a reality.
Levi’s infers that these programs are about more than altruism, branding or mitigating risk across the company’s supply chain. A 2011 study issued by Levi’s and BSR made the case that companies also reap financial gains when workers are healthier, more financially secure and feel safe in the workplace. Suppliers benefit as well, as they are more productive while enduring fewer losses stemming from absenteeism, attrition or late arrivals to factory shifts. Levi’s claims that at one supplying factory in Egypt, funds spent on health education services scored the vendor a 4-to-1 return on investment.
The question companies such as Levi’s must ask, however, is how employees would benefit if they were paid higher wages. In the aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, workers and the labor organizations supporting them increasingly demanded higher pay for what is often difficult and monotonous work. That same report in Egypt revealed Levi’s vendor paid $70 to $100 a month on average. In recent years, more developing countries have reduced food, fuel and other subsidies in order to balance their budgets, which makes it even more difficult to raise a family on such wages.
Social programs have their benefits and allow companies to appear progressive; nevertheless, a survey on what workers are paid, contrasted with what they need to earn in order to become financially secure, deserves a close look as well.