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Q&A: Levi’s Michael Kobori on Cambodia

The vice president of sustainability talks about the company's history in Cambodia and what it hopes for the future of workers who sew the iconic Levi’s jeans.

The new year started off inauspiciously for Cambodia, an important manufacturing base for major brands such as H&M, Gap and Levi Strauss. On Jan. 3, security forces opened fire on rioting workers who were protesting for higher wages in Phnom Penh, leaving at least four workers dead and more than 30 injured. Workers were calling for an increase to the monthly minimum wage, from $80 to $160, an amount labor activists say is enough to meet the rising costs of living in the country’s capital. Since the protests, the government has raised the minimum wage to $100 a month.

Here, Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co., talks about Levi’s history in Cambodia and what it hopes for the future of workers who sew the iconic Levi’s jeans. With 13 suppliers in Cambodia, Kobori said Levi’s is committed to staying in the country and helping to strengthen industrial relations.

WWD: What are your main concerns about the recent violence and the subsequent suppression of freedom of association? Since the Jan. 3 shooting, some workers and union leaders have been detained without bail, while the government has broken up peaceful demonstrations or gatherings.

Michael Kobori: Levi’s has been sourcing from Cambodia for more than 10 years, and we have really supported the Cambodian approach to the apparel industry, as well as protecting labor rights. Cambodia, historically, has believed that it can differentiate itself through support for labor rights. So that’s one of the reasons why we have supported the Better Factories Cambodia program for many years.

We do believe that the workers making our products should be treated with dignity and respect. They should have safe working conditions and healthy working conditions. Any time that labor rights are not supported, we are concerned about that.

WWD: Levi Strauss was one of 30 brands that requested a meeting with the Cambodian government to express their concerns about the recent violence. What sort of tangible demands came out of the meeting held on Feb. 19?

M.K.: I would say that with us in Cambodia, we are meeting with all the key stakeholders to see what we can do to support a return to that Cambodian model, which is to not only be an effective sourcing country for the industry but one that supports labor rights.

WWD: H&M said last year that it would pay its workers a fair wage by 2018. Is that something that Levi Strauss is thinking about as well?

M.K.: We believe that there are many different approaches to meeting workers’ needs and we are following the H&M approach with interest. The way we have looked at workers’ needs is to actually work with local NGOs and our suppliers to identify it. We’ve gone out and surveyed workers in a number of our factories to identify what is most important to our workers in that particular country because it varies. And we are working with the NGOs and with our key suppliers to develop programs that address areas like maternity and child health care, financial literacy and education.

WWD:
What do you think the Cambodian government should be doing to reconcile the workers’ need and desire for a higher minimum wage?

M.K.: It is up to the government in every country where we do business to set the wage rates. That’s the government’s responsibility. And the governments that we source from have to look to set wages in a fact-based, credible manner that is also transparent.

It is very important for business that labor-management relations be positive, and we always try to support mature industrial relations. Mature industrial relations means that both labor and management are working together. They understand ultimately that businesses need to be successful and they work toward supporting that goal.

WWD: What is the responsibility the brands have to workers in countries they source from, like Cambodia and Bangladesh, where many of these factory workers are some of the poorest people in the world?

M.K.:
Again, as I mentioned, our responsibility is to make sure that the people who make our products are treated with dignity and respect, that they have safe and healthy workplaces, that our terms of engagement and code of conduct are being supported in the factories. And now, beyond that, how do we begin to support or identify workers’ needs or well-being, and how do we support improving workers’ well-being?

WWD: In events where workers get injured or are killed, such as with the Jan. 3 shooting or the disasters in Bangladesh, is Levi Strauss open to considering contributing to a fund that helps these victims?

M.K.: I believe that the brand’s responsibility should be for the workers that are making their products in their factories. That’s our responsibility, that’s what we are focused on, to make sure that those people who are making Levi’s products are supported, and they are being treated with dignity and respect.

WWD: As wages rise across the region, how would that affect Levi Strauss in terms of pricing, and how would that affect your consumers?

M.K.: I would say that when consumers are aware of working conditions for the people who are making their products, consumers do care about how their products are being made. That’s been our experience. And that’s why over the years we have tried to focus on how people who are making our products are being treated. We were the first company to establish a code of conduct more than 20 years ago for all of our suppliers. We continue to try to innovate around people who make our products and how they are treated, and how we can better their lives.