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.
A recent protest in front of the Levi's store in New York City's Times Square, USA, has urged the company to sign the agreement prioritising the safety of garment workers in the two countries, reports British daily newspaper The Guardian.
On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, which housed five garment clothing factories, collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring approximately 2,500.
It was 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 garment factories in Bangladesh – the second largest exporter of clothing in the world, behind China.
However, since 2013, numerous top clothing brands have held out on signing on to the accord and subsequent extensions.
An expanded international accord was developed to include more safety and worker health provisions beyond fire, electrical and structural inspections and repairs of factories last year.
It covers garment factories in Bangladesh as well as Pakistan.
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 support the complaint process.
As per The Guardian report published online on Friday (23 September), 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 organisations, have formed a partnership to pressure Levi's to sign on to the accord.
Remake founder and CEO and Ayesha Barenblat told The Guardian, "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."
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."
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 Dhaka, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington DC, London, Delhi, Bengaluru, and several other cities.
Meanwhile, 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 characterised 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)."
"Recognising 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," they added.