A Close Look at a Fashion Supply Chain Is Not Pretty - The New York Times


A Close Look at a Fashion Supply Chain Is Not Pretty
A new report on factories in Malaysia that create products for Brooks Brothers, Leviʼs, LL Bean and others examines the high prices
workers pay for their jobs.
By Elizabeth Paton

The Pen Apparel factory in Penang, Malaysia. Photo Illustration by The New York Times; Google
Street View

TAL Apparel is one of the most powerful companies in the global fashion supply chain that many consumers have never heard of. Its
factories make huge numbers of shirts — particularly for men — for brands including Brooks Brothers, Bonobos and LL Bean. In fact,
TAL Apparel claims it makes one in six dress shirts sold in the United States.
Owned by TAL Group, which is based in Hong Kong and is a founding member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, TAL Apparel
employs about 26,000 garment workers in 10 factories globally, producing roughly 50 million pieces of apparel each year including
men’s chinos, polo tees, outerwear and dress shirts.
One of those factories is Pen Apparel, in the steamy seaside town of Penang in Malaysia, where 70 percent of workers at the factory
were migrants hired in countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh, according to TAL.
Along with Imperial Garments, a second TAL factory in nearby Ipoh, Pen Apparel is the subject of a new report from Transparentem,
a nonprofit that focuses on environmental and human rights abuses in supply chains.
The investigation, which was shown to brands supplied by the factories in late May, included allegations of potential forced labor
among TAL migrant workers, linked to payment of high recruitment fees in their home countries to guarantee their jobs.
According to the International Labor Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations dedicated to improving labor
conditions, forced labor is “work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person
has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.”
Companies don’t always make prompt, substantive changes when faced with revelations of exploitation in their supply chains. But the
pandemic has added factors that made the situation even more urgent.
The lockdown sent most clothing sales plummeting, causing Western retailers to slash orders and TAL to start closing its Malaysian
operations. If an agreement by TAL and the brands it supplied to pay compensation was not reached quickly, the risk was that the
migrant workers — now out of work — could be deported, or disappear into new local employment while still in heavy debt from their
jobs with TAL.
Conscious that Western brands are increasingly being held to account by consumers, both TAL and its partners appeared eager to
make amends. TAL also released a collective action plan July 24 though it was scant on key details.
The New York Times contacted Levi’s, Brooks Brothers, Suitsupply, Untuckit, LL Bean, Walmart, Lacoste, Charles Tyrwhitt, Stitch
Fix, Tie Bar, the Black Tux and Paul Frederick — all brands known to be supplied by TAL’s Malaysian factories.


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