US fashion firm probes workers ‘abuses’ in Ethiopia

Fashion giant PVH, which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, said it will investigate reports that Ethiopian workers who make clothes for their high-street stores routinely face verbal abuse and discrimination and earn as little as 12 cents per hour.

Workers in PVH supplier factories in Ethiopia are also forced to do unpaid overtime and lose pay for drinking water at their work stations, according to the US-based Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), which monitors labour conditions worldwide.

Hiring managers at one factory felt the stomachs of job applicants to see if they were pregnant, a WRC report found.

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“We will conduct an immediate and thorough investigation and take appropriate action if any violations are found,” a PVH spokeswoman said last week in a statement responding to the WRC’s findings.

“PVH takes the allegations raised in the WRC report very seriously, noting, however, that some of the interviews are two years old and the [Hawassa Industrial] Park and its practices have evolved since then.”

PVH helped finance the flagship manufacturing hub in the southern Ethiopian town of Hawassa, one of a dozen such parks.

Big brands

As labour, raw material and tax costs rise in Asian factories, Ethiopia is seeking to offer a cheaper alternative, attracting big brands such as US chain Gap and Sweden’s H&M.

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One of the poorest nations in Africa, Ethiopia is pushing to switch its economic focus from agriculture to manufacturing, in the face of increased scrutiny over labour conditions. Ethiopia does not have a minimum wage but companies sourcing from Ethiopia have a code of conduct prohibiting abuse, WRC said. Officials from Ethiopia’s labour ministry and the prime minister’s office were not immediately available to comment.

PVH is one of the world’s top clothing companies, generating nearly Sh970 billion ($9.7 billion) in revenues in 2018, according to its website. Its spokeswoman said that sourcing clothes from Ethiopia supported the local economy and promoted job creation.

A January study of Ethiopia by the WageIndicator Foundation - which publishes data on pay around the world - found that the majority of some 1,000 garment factory workers it surveyed earned less than a living wage of 4,130 birr (Sh14,300 or $143.90) a month.

“Unfortunately for the country’s garment workers, there is a yawning gap between the brands’ ethical pretentions and the workplace reality,” said Penelope Kyritsis, a researcher with the WRC. The WRC report also found labour rights abuses were common in factories in Ethiopia that supply H&M.

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EthiopiaPVHTommy HilfigerCalvin Klein