After wielding intense pressure against a Bangladeshi apparel maker over assaults on union leaders outside its factories, Western companies have agreed to resume business with that manufacturer, on the condition that it stay committed to halting further violence and make peace with its labor unions.
VF, which makes North Face and Nautica, and PVH, the parent of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, as well as Gap, El Corte Ingles and other companies, had cut off or threatened to cut off orders from the company, the Azim Group, last year over the incidents at two of its factories in Chittagong.
But now, after weeks of negotiations, these companies have agreed to resume business with Azim because it has promised to recognize and bargain with the unions at the two factories where the violence occurred.
Azim, industry and labor officials said, has also agreed to stop efforts to oust a labor union, to pay the medical bills of a badly beaten union leader and to allow several union officials to return to work with full back pay.
“It’s the first time that brands have taken such a concerted action in response to the use of violence against trade unions in Bangladesh,” said Jeff Hermanson, an American union official who helped several Western companies in their investigation of Azim.
VF, PVH, Li & Fung and several European companies moved to penalize Azim late last year after a closed-circuit camera outside an Azim factory in Chittagong showed that a female union leader was swarmed by people, pushed to the ground and beaten while a male union activist was chased away and punched.
Investigations by VF and a Washington-based workers’ rights group concluded the video showed that factory managers had directed those attacks at Azim’s Global Garments factory on Nov. 10.
Three months earlier, a female union president was beaten on the head with an iron rod just outside a nearby factory that was also owned by the Azim Group, workers’ right groups say; her injuries required more than 20 stitches.
Azim insists that neither it nor its managers were involved in either altercation, asserting that the Nov. 10 dispute arose between workers and union leaders.
Still, Farhan Azim, executive director at Azim, which says it has 24 factories and 27,000 employees, said it reached the agreement in the face of intense pressure.
“Azim Group was alarmed and to some extent helpless due to the lack of order flow after the suspensions were in place,” he wrote in an email, referring to the numerous customers that had suspended orders.
“We understood that the Western companies were under pressure from the labor groups and thus to offer some relief to their anxiety, we kept them well-informed of all developments.”
Scott Deitz, VF’s vice president for corporate relations, said his company had warned Azim after what he described as two “horrible incidents” including the beating of the union leader Mira Boashak, resulting in what he said were “life-threatening injuries.”
Mr. Deitz, who said his company represented about 10 percent of Azim’s volume, said VF had made clear to Azim that it would not tolerate harassment of union leaders and would insist on freedom of association, bargaining in good faith and punishing managers responsible for the incidents.
He said Azim had told VF that it would punish four managers, without giving details on the punishments.
“I will acknowledge that these gains have been made, but these gains must be sustained,” Mr. Deitz said.
Mr. Azim said his company “has always recognized the union in both the factories and there was never a question of ousting the union.”
He said one supervisor had been disciplined for violating the company’s code of conduct, although he declined to say what the discipline was. According to Mr. Azim, that manager had used his hands to move some workers who were engaged in the altercation with union leaders away from the factory’s main gate, and no other manager had been found to be involved.
As for Ms. Boashak, Mr. Azim said that the police report stated she was attacked by her personal enemies in an intra-family dispute, but that the company had agreed to pay her medical bills on “humanitarian grounds.”
The media attention and the disruption to business had hurt his company badly, he added.
“We are struggling to fetch orders to keep our production lines running, and honestly our chances of success are rather slim,” he said.
Anna Tehan, a spokeswoman for Li & Fung, said it was satisfied with Azim’s response, adding that it was lifting its suspension of orders, but that it would closely monitor Azim’s actions. Gap and PVH declined to comment.
The United States, Europe and labor groups have been pressuring Bangladesh’s government and garment industry to improve factory safety and guarantee that workers are free to unionize, in exchange for restoring trade preferences.
President Obama suspended the country’s trade privileges after the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh collapsed in April 2013, killing more than 1,100 apparel workers.
Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a monitoring group sponsored by 180 American universities, called the companies’ campaign “the most significant pressure that brands have ever placed on a manufacturer in Bangladesh over union rights.”
Still, he voiced concern that Azim’s managers had not been punished.
“The fact that no managers face any real consequences sends the wrong message,” he said.
– STEVEN GREENHOUSE and HIROKO TABUCHIFEB, New York Times