This month, an important event is taking place that should change the lives of workers on Saipan, an island in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and impact the way we address issues of sweatshop throughout the world. The $20 million settlement of a landmark sweatshop case will go before a Saipan judge for final approval, marking a major turning point in the struggle for dignity and respect for workers who toil in sweatshops sewing the clothes that we wear.
On January 13, 1999, in the first-ever industry-wide attempt to hold U.S. retailers and manufacturers accountable for the mistreatment of garment workers in foreign-owned factories operating on U.S. soil, workers filed a landmark lawsuit in federal court against top U.S. clothing companies, including Levi-Strauss & Co. This class action lawsuit alleged violations of wage and hour laws and other workers' rights.
Last September, after more than three years of hard-fought litigation, 26 of America's biggest clothing retailers and 23 local manufacturers in Saipan reached a settlement with the worker plaintiffs in this ground-breaking lawsuit. The settlement creates a $20 million fund to pay back wages to workers and develop an independent monitoring system to assure that workers will be treated with dignity. Levi Strauss, a $4 billion company that sells jeans, khakis and other casual wear, is the only retailer that refuses to settle with the workers.
In all of its marketing ads and public relations messages, Levi holds itself out as a pioneer overseas in social responsibility, the first to institute a corporate code of standards for every manufacturer with which it contracts and paying inspectors to enforce them. For the past several years, Levi has been promoting its image as a large benevolent company promoting fair labor standards and policing the conditions in its plants overseas. However, Levi's refusal to accept responsibility for the of sweatshop conditions in its factories during its 14 year presence in Saipan strongly contradicts this public claim. Levi's refusal to settle this lawsuit sends a strong message of corporate greed to workers, consumers, and concerned citizens worldwide.
Levi has closed 28 U.S. plants, laying off thousands of workers, and moved their manufacturing abroad to countries like Mexico and China where workers earn no more than poverty wages, labor and environmental standards are non-existent or largely ignored, and where workers lose their lives for engaging in unionization activities. In announcing six recent plan closures, Levi said it was becoming a "market company," and that future production in almost all cases would be by contract manufacturers. This contracting of its manufacturing base would take place in countries like Mexico, Bangladesh and China.
Instead of giving this corporate explanation, Levi should admit that it is going for the cheap labor and its contracting is an attempt to separate itself from the dirty hands of ownership that go with sweatshops.
For a recent Los Angeles Times Magazine article, Philip Marineau, Levi's President and CEO, was asked why Levi contracts out its manufacturing, and he acknowledged, "the apparel industry is chasing low-cost labor." This is but another indication of how Levi has joined the "race to the bottom" in generating the most profits for its clothing. Levi's refusal to accept responsibility for the inhumane working conditions in its factories in Saipan further exemplifies this corporate masquerading.
Levi stands alone in failing to end sweatshop abuse in Saipan. The company says it stopped purchasing garments made there, but running away does not resolve the abuses the workers endured. In Saipan and across the globe, the time has come for Levi to live up to its responsibility towards ending labor and human rights abuses by taking steps to protect workers' rights, including the freedom of association and collective bargaining, and abolish the use of labor contracts that deny workers their basic human rights.
For more information on Saipan sweatshops, visit
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