The sandblasting of denim has been driven out of the spotlight but has yet to be eliminated from factories in south China’s Guangdong province, according to a report issued Tuesday.

This story first appeared in the July 10, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The 38-page document alleges that some factories simply pack up their sandblasting machinery and hide it when audits and visits are scheduled, only to resume the practice when outsiders leave.

“Breathless for Blue Jeans: Health Hazards in China’s Denim Factories” includes interviews with factory workers at six denim facilities in Guangdong, which the authors said is responsible for approximately half of the world’s jeans production. It alleges that these facilities have reduced but not eliminated manual and mechanical sandblasting, which exposes workers to crystalline silica dust particles that can cause silicosis, an irreversible lung disease.

It was published by the Clean Clothes Campaign, the War on Want workers’ rights group, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, or SACOM, and the Hong Kong Liaison Office of the international trade union movement.

These organizations are seeking a global ban on sandblasting in addition to improved protection for workers involved in other potential injurious practices, such as the spraying of potassium permanganate, a lightening agent.

While a large number of brands and retailers in the U.S. and Europe have officially banned sandblasting from their supply chains — some unilaterally and others following pressure from these groups and others — compliance has been difficult to prove as subcontractors occasionally have been hired for portions of the work or replicas of brands have been discovered in plants producing counterfeit merchandise.

Tuesday’s report compounded some of that uncertainty.

The group’s research found that only one of the plants studied, Dongguan Gloss Mind Apparel Co., had fully eliminated sandblasting from its operations and that three — Zhongshan Yida Apparel Ltd., Dongguan Golden City Washing Sandblast & Brush Factory (Golden City) and Conshing Clothing Group Co. Ltd. — had vowed to do so.

“Our investigations, including direct workers’ testimony, revealed that the practice may not have been discontinued at all,” the report said. “One factory reportedly continued its sandblasting on the sly, surreptitiously dismantling the sandblasting machinery and hiding it in advance of inspections.”

In one case, two manual sandblasting machines were kept at Golden City to accommodate other customers of Gloss Mind but taken apart and hidden upon the occasion of an audit or inspection.

Levi Strauss & Co. confirmed its association with Golden City and the discovery in 2011 of the hidden sandblasting equipment. “In January 2012, factory management informed us that they had removed all sandblasting equipment and sent photos as proof,” said Kris Marubio, director of corporate affairs at Levi’s. “We conducted a validation to confirm that no sandblasting equipment remained in the factory. The last audit was conducted on April 9, 2013.” She added that worker interviews were part of the validation process.

Reiterating Levi’s opposition to the use of sandblasting and all abrasives in its supply chain, Marubio said, “Our ambition is to see the practice end industry-wide. We were the first apparel company to announce a sandblasting ban, doing so with H&M in September 2010. We are encouraged to see that numerous other manufacturers have since imposed similar bans.”

The report outlined numerous other risks and abuses faced by the workers in these plants despite changes in China’s occupational health and safety laws and guidelines. “There is a dramatic lack of resources, monitoring is lax, corruption is endemic and abuses of power by local authorities remain high,” the group said.

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