Levi Strauss moving to Haiti; N. American plants closing in March

By Don Thomas, The Edmonton Journal, Saturday 4 October 2003

EDMONTON—As Levi Strauss prepares to close its North American plants, including one in Edmonton, it’s ramping up production in Third World countries, including Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.

With help from the World Bank, Grupo M, the Dominican Republic’s largest employer, has opened a plant in a free trade zone in nearby Haiti, where 300 workers are sewing jeans for Levi Strauss.

They are paid 80 cents Cdn per hour. But while that’s atrocious by Canadian standards, it’s big money in Haiti, said Mark Constantine, of Washington, D.C., who works on the Grupo M project for the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank division which finances corporations. The annual per capita income in Haiti is $500 and 80 per cent of Haitians live in abject poverty, he said.

The IFC is providing about $58 million to Grupo M for textile projects in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and says Levi Strauss is already one of Grupo M’s largest customers. Dockers and other Levi Strauss clothes are being sewn in its Dominican Republic plants.

Plans call for two additional plants in Haiti with up to 1,500 workers making clothes for Levi Strauss, Liz Claiborne, Tommy Hilfiger, Polo and Hanes.

Julie Klee, of Toronto, Canadian manager for Levi Strauss, would not say where their clothes will be made when the North American plants are closed in March. Today, more than 30 per cent of the product we sell in Canada is made by suppliers in more than 50 different countries in North America and around the world.

She said suppliers must follow a Levi Strauss code of conduct for fair and ethical treatment of workers. We only do business with suppliers that adhere to these guidelines, and we work with internal and third-party inspectors to monitor suppliers vigilantly.

Child labour is banned and pay levels and hours of work must comply with the laws of the country. Preference is given to contractors whose work week is 60 hours or less, said Klee, and contractors must respect workers right to form a union and bargain collectively.

Edmonton union officials were unavailable for comment.

Constantine denied allegations by a Haitian support group in Britain that 20 Grupo M workers in Haiti were fired because of union-organizing activity. They were let go because they weren’t suitable, he said.

Levi Strauss has promised that its 1,100 Canadian workers will receive generous severance packages. And it said about $1 million in community transition grants will be divided among Edmonton and Brantford and Stoney Creek in Ontario.

Details have not been finalized, Klee said.