Lululemon's response to Bangladesh abuse allegations 'not good enough' - Tearfund NZ

Tearfund NZ has called Canadian sportswear brand Lululemon's actions "not good enough" after a factory in Bangladesh allegedly mistreated, intimidated and beat employees.

It comes after workers at the Bangladeshi clothing factory, which has a contract to produce clothes for the upmarket athleisure company, spoke out for an investigation by the Guardian. They also claim they are paid the equivalent of the retail cost of a pair of leggings for more than one month's worth of work. 

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Tearfund’s Ian McInnes joined TVNZ1’s Breakfast to discuss allegations the factory have mistreated, intimidated and beaten workers. Source: Breakfast

Lululemon, which has three retail stores in Auckland, has since halted orders from the factory while they investigate.

Aid and development organisation Tearfund NZ's chief executive, Ian McInnes, criticised Lululemon for what he suggested was a tepid response to the allegations.

"When you dig a bit, you find that being in their factories in 2013, 14 and 15 – we're in 2019 now, there’s four years’ gap here – where they haven't seen what's going on and I think here, you've got allegations of mistreatment of workers and forced overtime," Mr McInnes told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning.

"One woman's been hit so hard in the chest she's had to lie down at the end of the production line and recover, so I think it's unacceptable.

"Those who buy this product might say, 'Oh, that’s terrible, it might be isolated.' Well, it might be – there are 4 million garment workers in Bangladesh – but we've seen standards improve and this just doesn't meet the bar at all."

Mr McInnes said while Lululemon has a code of ethics to follow which stipulates that vendors must ensure employees' work hours do not exceed 60 hours per week except under extenuating circumstances, you "can drive a bus through that clause".

"What you've got going on there is line managers can simply spin around and go, 'I'm sorry, we're falling behind in production this week, we're falling behind next week, we're falling behind the week after' and so they're just pumping the hours until workers break," he said.

"In New Zealand terms, if they paid $2.90 more - that's what they would have to pay to get to a living wage - we might go, 'Well, that's a big jump'.

"I think those who shop at Lululemon would be happy to pay $2.90 more for a pair of leggings if they thought that put a profitable wage in the pocket of a Bangladesh worker."

Mr McInnes said companies using Bangladeshi clothing factories despite claims of poor working conditions are "a mixed story" and "a really big spectrum".

An example of a well-run factory, he said, involves "really good relations between staff and employees", including supervisors helping employees whose households are undergoing hardship, such as an illness or a debt.

"This is quite remarkable compared to hitting somebody across the chest or the face when they can't keep up," he added.

He said companies such as Lululemon, which chooses to use garment factories which pay US$100 a month, is "a tough one", noting that the garment industry has helped lift countries such as China, Cambodia and Vietnam out of poverty.

"I wouldn't just say, 'Buy New Zealand-made' ... because it does, in fact, help lift Bangladesh out of poverty," he said. "Now let's get the standard right, and I think the fact these workers are being prepared to go hit stop on the wall and stop the supply chain and speak to the Guardian and says they know they’ve got an audience, I wouldn't be surprised."

Mr McInnes also noted that Lululemon last week launched a programme for 30,000 UN frontline refugee staff for yoga, mindfulness and self-care.

"Well, that's wonderful, but that's the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, those UN workers helping refugees. Well, let's get the fence built at the top and get the living wage being paid."

He called for Lululemon to raise its prices in order to help increase Bangladeshi garment workers' wages.

"If you're going to be paying $135, pay $137.90 and let's get a proper wage in the back pocket of a worker in Bangladesh who's trying to feed their family and raise that standard, make sure those 4 million workers have that proper care."

He added: "Nobody goes to work to be hit across the face or lie down at the end of the line because they’ve been punished for not being able to keep up on 70, 80, 90 hours a week, and actually, this is not uncommon at that end of the industry because the wages are poverty wages."

In a statement, a Lululemon spokesperson told Breakfast, "We take these allegations very seriously and we’re committed to a full, independent investigation.

"Members of Lululemon's social responsibility and production team visited the factory in Bangladesh immediately to speak with workers and learn more. We will work with an independent non-profit third party to fully investigate the matter.

"While our production at this factory is extremely limited, we will ensure workers are protected from any form of abuse and are treated fairly."