Athletic apparel retailer Lululemon has found itself embroiled in controversy over reports of alleged abuse of the female workers in its supplying factories in Bangladesh.
According to an exposé published by the The Guardian, the Bangladeshi women who make Lululemon clothing in the factories have claimed that they were subjected to physical and verbal abuse. Based on the workers’ claims, they were often subjected to sexual slurs by their managers who called them “sluts” and “whores.”
Lululemon garment factories are in developing countries where labor is cheaper. It sources its goods from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Vietnam, among others.
“We don’t own our manufacturing facilities so we take great care selecting our manufacturing partners,” its website states. “Our approach is to build relationships with factories that are aligned with our values and meet our sourcing expectations.”
“Our Vendor Code of Ethics applies to all countries where our products are manufactured, including Bangladesh, and ensures that our partners follow a single set of policies, regardless of legal and cultural differences,” it added.
In their interview with The Guardian, the workers from Bangladesh claimed that their managers beat them and made them to work long hours in grueling conditions in order to reach production targets. Some of the workers were forced to work despite being sick. The women say they are often placed under immense pressure not to leave their work stations until they are told they can.
Some of the workers complained that they are paid 9,100 taka a month ($107.50) – which is less than the price of a pair of Lululemon leggings, which can cost a little over $170. Worker unions have been demanding at least 16,000 taka ($187) to meet minimum living wage estimates.
One worker said that when she left work early after feeling unwell she was slapped the next day.
“I was sick, so one day I left work at 5 p.m. but I informed the line supervisor. He told his bosses I left without telling anyone and the next day, when I went to work, the technician in charge of my line slapped me,” she said. “He slapped me so hard my cheeks turned red and everyone asked me what happened. I couldn’t tell them the actual story. I just told them I had allergies.”
At the time, the worker decided not to lodge her complaint as she felt it would lead nowhere.
“During last Ramadan, they created a new line and recruited new female workers. One day, a technician hit a label operator so hard on her chest. We could see she was in pain the whole day … She was lying in the back of the line for hours but our bosses did nothing about her.”
When reached for reaction, a spokesperson for Lululemon said it has a strict code of practice, and does not tolerate such violations.
“There are currently no orders planned for this factory, and we will take appropriate action based upon the findings of our investigation,” a spokesperson said.
Lululemon also stated on its website that the company is “in regular dialogue” with its overseas suppliers, although the last inspection of the Bangladeshi site was way back in 2015.
“We work with three cut and sew facilities in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Export Zone, who are considered preferred employers in the region,” the website says. “As part of our ongoing assessment process, inspections of the facilities were completed in September 2013 by a commissioned third party, and again in April 2014 and July 2015 by our in-house team.”
In 2013, Lululemon was heavily criticised for taking months to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord, following a factory disaster in Bangladesh that killed over 1,130 people.
Earlier this month, Lululemon announced a partnership with the United Nations Foundation (UNF) in which it was revealed that they have been working together for the last three years in developing a curriculum of evidence-based mindfulness, yoga and self-care training. Under the program, they cave conducted pilot testing to over 500 aid workers in eight countries to date.
When the Bangladeshi allegations emerged, a UN Foundation spokesperson said: “We believe all workers should be treated fairly and welcome Lululemon’s investigation.”
Lululemon has been doing good well in recent years with its products worn by celebrities and social media influencers. The company is expected to earn up to $3.84 billion in sales by the year’s end.
Feature image (left) via USAID, Instagram / (right) Lululemon