Lululemon is investigating one of its factories in Bangladesh after workers reported being verbally and physically abused by their managers, being forced to work overtime and earning less than a living wage.
The allegations of abuse were first reported on Monday by The Guardian.
Young, female factory workers reported being called “whores” and “sluts” by their managers and said they were forced to work overtime to hit targets, even when ill.
One worker told The Guardian that a manager slapped her face after she left work early because she was unwell.
Some workers said they earned as little as 9100 taka, approximately $158, a month. This is slightly above the legal minimum wage of 8000 taka a month, but well below the 16,000 taka that unions have been campaigning for and say is needed to live a comfortable life in Bangladesh.
Lululemon leggings typically retail in Australia for $119.
The company, which is based in Canada, said it is committed to a full, independent investigation of the allegations.
“Members of Lululemon’s social responsibility and production team visited the factory in Bangladesh immediately to speak with workers and learn more,” a company spokesperson told Inside Retail.
“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.”
The news comes amid greater scrutiny on retail supply chains in Australia, following the passage of the Modern Slavery Act last year.
“Ultimately, brand owners and retailers are responsible for the human rights of these making their products and materials,” Nicole Thompson, senior sustainability consultant at Edge Environment, told Inside Retail.
To ensure they’re not supporting modern slavery, businesses should not only conduct regular audits, she said, but also make sure workers have access to and are aware of a grievance mechanism, such as an anonymous hotline.
For instance, last year, Kathmandu launched a WeChat hotline for workers in factories overseas to lodge complaints with the retailer directly.
“In some cultures it can be difficult to make a complaint, but the QR code has proved to be empowering. We can now receive messages directly from the workers making our products,” Gary Shaw, Kathmandu’s corporate responsibility manager, said at the time.
Youngone Corporation, which owns and runs the factory where the abuse of Lululemon factory workers allegedly occurred, told The Guardian it encourages factory workers to share their opinion or launch a complaint through different channels.
According to Lululemon’s website, supply chain workers can also report concerns via an email address, or in person to any member of its partner sustainability teams.
Retailers also need to consider whether their procurement practices, such as tight deadlines, are contributing to forced labour or unsafe working conditions, according to Thompson.
She encouraged businesses to work with nonprofits with local knowledge, improve supply chain transparency and build ongoing, trusted relationships with suppliers.
“In regards to avoiding high risk countries all together, this is definitely not the best approach,” she said.
“Cutting off countries or factories, could potentially put the people working there in a worse position. Organisations should instead take responsibility for the people in their supply chain, and work closely with their suppliers to lift and improve working conditions. Cutting off a supplier is a last resort.”
The revelations come on the heels of Lululemon’s recent announcement that it will teach mindfulness techniques, such as yoga and meditation, to thousands of United Nations staff.
The partnership is aimed at improving the mental health and well-being of UN humanitarian and aid workers.