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How to build worker well-being: Levi Strauss in Cambodia

<p>Twenty years after the company implemented a supplier code of conduct, it&#39;s going even further.</p>

This post is the first in a two-part series describing Andrea Moffat's recent experiences on the ground in Cambodia -- engaging with suppliers, local NGOs and brands on the implementation of Levi Strauss & Co.'s Improving Worker Well-Being initiative. Come back to GreenBiz to read Part II on March 29.

I arrive in Phnom Penh on a Monday expecting a mad crush of people, cars, buses, bicycles and motorbikes, but it's as calm as a Sunday morning in my hometown of Ottawa. It's the Buddhist holy day, meak bochea, the day Buddha predicted he would achieve enlightenment and enter into nirvana.

Though my goals aren't quite so lofty, it is enlightenment I'm after. I'm trying to get a glimpse into the world of the hundreds of thousands of workers who labor in Cambodia's many garment factories making products such as Levi's jeans. Indeed, Levi Strauss & Co. is the reason I'm here.

More than 20 years ago, LS&Co. became the first multinational apparel company to establish a comprehensive workplace code of conduct for its global suppliers. The code was visionary for its time, and became a model for many other companies. But LS&Co. concluded two years ago that the code, while important, is not enough; the company has to expect more from its suppliers, and itself, to improve the well-being of those who make the world's most famous jeans and other Levi apparel.

That means focusing not just on factory compliance, but also on broader worker issues like health care, maternal health and gender equality. This ambitious, long-term commitment formally kicked off a year ago with a joint LS&Co./Ceres report, "Improving Worker Well-Being: A New Approach to Supply Chain Management."

In Phnom Penh, LS&Co. has gathered representatives from its suppliers, NGOs, other brands and partners across the industry to discuss the best strategies and tactics for improving working conditions. Some sample topics include increasing fire and electrical safety training, boosting clean production practices and improving the interaction between workers and management.

LS&Co. is urging its suppliers to take steps to improve relationships with workers and the labor unions that represent them. The meeting room is filled with translators working furiously to interpret the candid discussion -- the buzz they create is both fascinating and distracting to witness, as one wonders how much of the debate is being lost in translation.

Throughout the meeting, there is a high priority placed on labor and management communication. As I look around the room, I see representatives eagerly taking notes while discussing leading-edge strategies for improving labor and management relations, an important step in protecting the rights and improving the lot of workers. One supplier in particular talks about establishing a new department devoted to expressly improving worker, management and union communications, where regular meetings between senior executives, management and labor unions occur, and where worker inquiries or complaints must be addressed within three days.

When LS&Co. first announced its intent to launch the Improving Worker Well-Being program, the company said, "You must expect more, to get more." While this meeting is with company managers, not workers, and is focused on compliance with LS&Co.'s current code of conduct, the message is being sent that the company is expecting more, much more.

The groundwork is being laid here for an ambitious effort to improve workers' lives. LS&Co. will pioneer this effort, starting with five pilot factories in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Haiti and Pakistan. During the rest of my time here, we'll be exploring the possibilities for realizing this bold vision and the opportunities for bringing it to scale.

Stay tuned.

Photo courtesy of Levi Strauss & Co. and Ceres.

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