Partnership in Focus: Levi Strauss & Co. on Investing in the Health of Factory Workers

This post was originally written for The Population Council's "Ideas that Matter" and published on March 7, 2017.

Public-private partnerships create “win-win” opportunities for both the public and private sectors and have become essential elements of development projects. Traditionally, these partnerships have focused on providing funding or sharing business know-how. However, with business at the table shaping the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the private sector is increasingly recognized as a key player in delivering development solutions directly through their own operations. One company that has stepped up to this challenge is Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.). Through its Worker Well-being program, LS&Co. is moving beyond a“do no harm” compliance model of labor rights in its global supply chain, and has integrated the health and well-being of the workers that produce their clothing into their core business agenda.

LS&Co. has had a long collaboration with Meridian Group International, beginning with Meridian’s technical assistance to Business for Social Responsibility on the launch of the HERproject in LS&Co. supplier factories in Egypt and Pakistan. Meridian produced a series of return on investment studies in those countries, which estimated that for every $1 a factory spends on the health of its workers, it sees about a $3-4 return from such benefits as higher productivity, lower staff turnover, and lower absenteeism. This collaboration was expanded in Egypt, where Meridian, under the Evidence Project, piloted a model to strengthen the quality and management of an apparel factory’s health services.  This informed the development (with HERproject) of the “Workplace Health Facility Guidelines and Management Benchmarks” and Scorecard.

These Benchmarks represent the first set of guidelines outlining minimum quality standards for workplace health service provision, and give workplace managers guidance for supervising and improving health activities, including reproductive health services.

Most recently, the Levi Strauss Foundation helped finance the development by the Evidence Project of an open-access tool for factory managers, called “Managing Health at the Workplace: A Guidebook.” Designed to be a practical road map for operationalizing the Benchmarks, the Guidebook brings together 10 years of experience and practical tools for managers to improve their workplace health functions and supervision of health staff.

Rather than keeping these resources a closely guarded company secret, LS&Co. has made them publicly available to encourage other apparel companies to follow suit. Here’s what they had to say in a recent blog post about improving the health of women who work in their global supply chain:

Investing in the health of factory workers is not just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do…

Women’s health needs are often overlooked in the workplace – and they may not have access to health services outside the factory at all, particularly around reproductive health and family planning. Recognizing the unique challenges that women face is an important step toward promoting gender equality on the factory floors.

The guidebook offers specific and compelling case studies to make its case – such as a factory in Bangladesh that saw absenteeism related to menstruation drop from 75 percent to 3 percent after a health education program encouraged women to use sanitary napkins rather than unclean cloth (often these were fabric scraps picked up off the factory floor). The company also saved money on monthly plumbing costs for factory pipes that had been clogged by the cloth.

The partnership between the Evidence Project/Meridian and LS & Co. illustrates the positive impact that public-private partnerships can make on the health of women workers around the world. Promoting direct investment and engagement by business in the achievement of development goals can amplify and accelerate results.