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Levi’s under fire after supplier laid off hundreds of workers

Istanbul CNN  —  Levi’s is a global brand that says it has always stood up for “what’s right.” But its claim to be an ethical company is now in question following the release of a report from an independent labor monitoring group. Critics accuse Levi’s (LEVI) of ignoring its own labor standards after it continued working with a factory in Turkey that fired around 400 people last year after they joined a union and went on strike over pay and working conditions. Turkey is a critical link in the global supply chain for apparel. The country exported around $30 billion worth of apparel and textiles last year, according to the Istanbul Exporters’ Association, a clothing industry group. One player in the industry is Ozak Tekstil’s factory in Turkey’s Sanliurfa region, which exclusively makes jeans for Levi’s. Ozak Tekstil also produces clothing in its other factories in Turkey for brands such as Zara, Hugo Boss, Guess, Mango and Ralph Lauren, according to the report by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), published Friday. Seher Gulel worked in quality control at the factory before she was fired in late November. She was paid Turkey’s minimum wage, she told CNN, which at the time was about $15 a day. Pressure, bullying and insults by managers were frequent, she says, and excessively long days were common. She would often work from 8 a.m. until midnight or even into the early morning hours — even though, under Turkish law, workers should not work more than 11 hours in a day. “The (illegal) overtime problem was constant,” she said. Ozak Tekstil said its overtime hours and payments were within the law. Months into the job Gulel had had enough. She joined a new union, Birtek-Sen, switching from another one, which she says was ineffective and “always pro-boss.” (The union denies this). Within 10 days of joining Birtek-Sen, she was fired for what Ozak Tekstil called “quality control errors.” Her dismissal provided the spark for hundreds of workers at the factory to walk off the job, according to the WRC report and Gulel. The workers had been on strike for a little over two weeks when Ozak Tekstil made good its threat to fire those who refused to return to work. Roughly 400 were dismissed in mid-December — almost half the factory’s staff. “We were looking for justice,” Gulel told CNN. “But we got injustice. Ozak Tekstil told CNN it had terminated the workers “as a last resort” when they declined an invitation to return to work. It also said that, while a Turkish law enshrines the right to strike, under the same law, Birtek-Sen didn’t have enough members to collectively bargain and organize a strike. “Since the day the factory was founded, workers’ right to unionize has always been respected,” Ozak Tekstil said. However, the WRC report says: “The labor law also flatly prohibits employers from firing workers for striking, , unless the country’s labor courts have first ruled that the strike in question is unlawful.” A court did rule that the strike had been illegal but the ruling didn’t come until five months after the firings. In an email between Levi’s and the Birtek-Sen union, shared with CNN by the WRC, Levi’s acknowledged that the mass firings violated its own supplier code of conduct, which states that its factories “shall respect the right to free association and the right to organize and bargain collectively without unlawful interference.” Importantly for Gulel’s case, the code also dictates that suppliers must ensure workers who join the union “are not the object of discrimination, harassment, or punitive disciplinary actions.” In that email, dated December 22, 2023, the company also said it had instructed Ozak Tekstil to reinstate the workers. If it refused, “we will be forced to take the appropriate next steps to uphold workers’ rights,” Levi’s wrote. ‘Meaningless’ standards But Ozak Tekstil didn’t do what Levi’s was asking. It did not reinstate all of the fired workers. The company told CNN it had offered most of the workers their jobs back (but without the right to continue with the strike), but only a handful had accepted the offer. On April 1, months after the mass dismissals, Levi’s wrote to the WRC reconfirming that its code of conduct had been violated but adding that it was “less clear that exiting Ozak and potentially putting an additional 400 people out of work in the process is how we should proceed.” This is how WRC executive director Scott Nova summarized the situation: “The factory said no, and Levi’s in the end said, ‘well, okay, we’ll give you business anyway.’” He called the firings “one of the most brazen, outrageous violations” of workers’ right to strike that he’d seen anywhere in years. “The message Levi’s is sending to all of its suppliers globally — of which there are many hundreds — is that Levi’s labor standards are meaningless. But even though Levi’s says factories have to respect the rights of workers, what Levi’s really wants is cheap blue jeans produced quickly regardless of the consequences for the workers who make them,” Nova said. Inside the Ozak Tekstil factory in Sanliurfa, Turkey, in December 2023. Obtained by CNN In a statement to CNN, Levi’s said it had “a longstanding commitment to supporting safe, productive workplaces for workers, and we take any allegations of efforts to curtail freedom of association extremely seriously.” It said it continued sourcing jeans from the factory despite the mass firings, to avoid further job losses, but the continuation of its relationship with the supplier depends “on management’s fulfillment of a detailed remediation plan that addresses freedom of association, working hours, and health and safety.” As for Gulel’s allegations of excessive overtime and abusive managers at the factory, Levi’s did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment. Hugo Boss told CNN it was “monitoring the accusations” at the Levi’s plant in Sanliurfa. “Ozak has confirmed that it complies with our social standards, which are mandatory for a business relationship with Hugo Boss, and that a trade union has been active in the company for over 10 years,” said Carolin Westermann, a spokesperson for the German brand. ‘Blacklisted’ While most fired workers received a severance payment, many are now struggling to find a job — and that may be due to something else they received from Ozak Tekstil: an effective black mark in a publicly accessible government database. Gulel has been out of work for seven months and former union rep Funda Bakis, who was fired in mid-December, for more than six. They both say they’re now “blacklisted.” According to Gulel’s dismissal notice seen by CNN, the official reason for her firing stated in the database is “code 50,” which means the employee “endangers the safety of the job due to (their) own will or negligence, causes damage and loss to the machines … to the extent that (they) cannot repay with the amount of (their) 30-day wage.” As for Bakis, she was given “code 46,” which indicates behavior “such as abusing the employer’s trust, stealing, revealing the employer’s professional secrets.” Ozak Tekstil didn’t respond to CNN’s question on why it had chosen those codes, beyond insisting the firings had been justified. Nor did Levi’s respond to CNN’s request for comment on this issue. The Ozak Tekstil factory in Sanliurfa, Turkey, in December 2023. Obtained by CNN Bakis has moved in with her parents and lives alongside more than 10 other people in a three-bedroom apartment, amounting to about 100 square meters (1,076 square feet) of space. Seasonal farm work may now be her only employment option. “We expected more from Levi’s than from Ozak, because it’s an international company and a brand that talks a lot about humane working conditions,” she said, noting that some of her friends who had also been fired by the factory in December had “children at home who were hungry.” According to WRC researchers, who have been in touch with Levi’s for months, the company has no plans to provide monetary assistance or compensation to any of the fired workers. Ozak Tekstil said the mass dismissals in December had “nothing to do with working hours or wages.” “Ozak Tekstil is one of the companies that employs personnel in the best working conditions and pays the highest wages in the textile industry in the (Sanliurfa) region,” it added. Gulel and Bakis beg to differ. They are among 21 former employees who are suing Ozak Tekstil for back pay — including unpaid overtime, severance pay, holiday pay and for working on weekends and national holidays. They are also seeking further compensation because they claim they were fired due to their union ties, according to the lawyer for the group. Ozak Tekstil denies this. “After all these rights violations, they took away our bread, they took away our jobs. They didn’t leave anything undone to us, just because we were demanding our rights. But justice never prevailed. I hope it does from now on,” Bakis said. Tanem Zaman, Eyad Kourdi and Brice Laine contributed to this article.