Trail of broken promises: Levi’s denies justice to unlawfully fired workers in Türkiye

After a serious instance of union busting at the Levi’s supply factory Özak Tekstil in Şanlıurfa, Türkiye, late in 2023, Levi’s made promises to uphold workers’ rights to freedom of association that the company failed to live up to in subsequent months. In response tonew research into the violations by the Worker Rights Consortium published earlier today, Clean Clothes Campaign renews its call on Levi’s to live up to its earlier promises and protect its workers’ right to organise freely.
Workers at Özak Tekstil factory protesting in November 2023

Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) joins Turkish union BİRTEK-SEN in calling upon Levi’s and Özak/Kübrateks management, as well as other buyers sourcing from the Özak group to immediately offer all dismissed workers unconditional and collective reinstatement in their previously held positions, including payment of wage losses incurred from the date of their dismissal to the date of their return to work. We additionally demand that the workers who choose not to accept this offer are paid “union compensation” as per Turkish law.

On November 27 last year, hundreds of workers producing jeans for Levi Strauss in Şanlıurfa, in the southeast of Türkiye, went on strike over violations of their right to freedom of association. The strike followed the dismissal of a young woman worker who was an activist in the Unified Textile, Weaving and Leather Workers Union (BİRTEK-SEN). In just a couple months, by mid-December 2023, 600 workers out of a workforce of 768 at the factory owned by the large conglomerate Özak Global had signed up to join BİRTEK-SEN. 

BİRTEK-SEN’s organising efforts were met with threats and intimidation especially targeted at women workers. Instead of respecting workers’ right to form and join the union of their choosing, the union favoured by Özak management called women workers into its office and threatened to tell their husbands and families that they were behaving immorally by joining BİRTEK-SEN. A few days into the peaceful strike, workers called for international solidarity. The Şanlıurfa government sent in the militarized provincial security forces (gendarmerie) – workers were tear-gassed, beaten, pepper-sprayed, and detained.  

As the only buyer in factory, Levi’s was in an excellent position to ensure a swift and positive resolution, and both the union and organisations in the CCC network contacted the company. Upon being informed of the case, Levi’s promised to investigate, but meanwhile, Özak management terminated 400 workers who were on strike.

At the end of December, Levi’s told CCC it has “urged a proper remediation with the worker who was wrongfully terminated in November, which is now underway, and firmly expressed [its] support for the lawful expression of workers’ voices and workers’ right to freedom of association.” Levi’s assured it had “communicated to [management] that the termination of workers, which [it] had strongly advised against, is a zero-tolerance violation of [its] Supplier Code of Conduct and called on them to reinstate the workers who were fired.” Levi’s added: “If they do not agree to comply, we will be forced to take the appropriate next steps to uphold workers’ rights, make our position known publicly and protect our business.” Despite this promise, Levi’s would end up doing nothing of the kind.

As we learn today, through a new report published bys the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent organisation investigating worker rights violations, Levi’s never made good on its promise, and never stopped producing at the factory, despite its earlier communications to different groups involved that it would cease production. All this time, Levi’s could have insisted that the factory management reinstate the dismissed workers but, instead, it allowed Özak Global, which had by now changed all workers’ contracts to its subsidiary Kübrateks, to hire new workers, discriminating against BİRTEK-SEN’s members. Repeated calls to Levi’s were met with no response. Clean Clothes Campaign was informed by BİRTEK-SEN that the factory management told at least 50 of the dismissed workers explicitly they could be rehired only if they would resign from BİRTEK-SEN and no longer participate in its activities.

As outlined in the report, soon after the mass firing, factory management presented workers with a document waiving their rights to reinstatement and union compensation in order to receive their severance, which most of the terminated workers signed out of hardship and desperation. The fact that they signed this document does not eliminate the rightfulness of the BİRTEK-SEN members’ demand for reinstatement and union compensation, nor does it restrict Levi’s ability to insist on these measures in line with the values laid down in its own code of conduct.

“Levi’s did not only completely fail to take any action to address serious human rights violations, but also completely disregards its own findings and conclusions regarding those violations,” says Ineke Zeldenrust of the CCC International Office. “As the buyer sourcing 100% of the volume in the factory, Levi’s had all the evidence and all the leverage to ensure the right of workers to freely form and join a union of their choice, which is a core human right, would be respected, but it chose to sit back and let injustice prevail,” Zeldenrust adds.

Levi’s latest claim is that they continue to work with Özak/Kubrateks on a “conditional basis contingent on management’s fulfilment of a detailed remediation plan that addresses freedom of association, working hours, and health and safety”. Clean Clothes Campaign has not seen this remediation plan, but given Levi’s previous statement about this “zero-tolerance violation”, and given the evidence provided in the WRC report, full reinstatement of dismissed workers is the only viable outcome of a credible remediation plan.

The chilling effect this denial of workers’ rights has on the overall climate for independent worker organising in the area and towards BİRTEK-SEN cannot be underestimated. Workers have been sent a clear message: exercise your right to freedom of association and you will be punished. Brands might tell people they will respect your rights, but this is a lie.  

Funda Bakış, one of the worker leaders, says: “We used our constitutional right to choose a union to seek better working conditions and became members of BİRTEK-SEN. Four hundred workers were dismissed for using this right. We produce for Levi's here. Although we contacted Levi's from the first day and asked for support, Levi's did nothing. We invite all consumers who wear Levi's to support our case and demand that Levis respect our rights.”

Other buyers from Özak Global, which operates several facilities in Türkiye, including Hugo Boss and Inditex, were also contacted for support, but to no avail. With this report, these brands now have all the evidence that their supplier continues to be responsible for gross violations, and the failure to address, mitigate, and remedy those violations is a failure also of the brands’ due diligence obligations.

We have been informed that a complaint was filed against Levi’s, Hugo Boss, and Inditex for violation of their obligations under the German supply chain law on 24 May 2024 by the International Union Working Group Cologne (Internationaler gewerkschaftlicher Arbeitskreis Köln, IGAKK) on behalf of BİRTEK-SEN, and is presently under consideration.

Mehmet Türkmen, President of the BİRTEK-SEN union, says: “Levi's is a global leader in the jeans industry, with products sold in over 50,000 retail locations in more than 100 countries. Levi's, which promotes the image that it respects workers’ rights wherever it manufactures in the world and that its products do not involve exploitation, has actually turned its back on Özak Tekstil workers who have been resisting for months for their union rights and for humane and dignified living conditions.”

published 2024-06-21