Jeans maker Levi Strauss & Co is to close its last remaining manufacturing and finishing plants in the United States and Canada, leaving nearly 2,000 employees out of work.

The 150-year-old San Francisco-based company says the plant closures are part of a strategy to shift away from company owned-and-operated manufacturing, and that its jeans will now be made by contractors in other countries, most likely Latin America and Asia.

Levi's says the shutdowns will enable it to refocus its resources on product design and development, sales and marketing and retail customer relationships.

Chief executive Phil Marineau said in a statement: "We're in a highly competitive industry where few apparel brands own and operate manufacturing facilities in North America. In fact, we are one of the last companies to do so."

The sewing and finishing operations in San Antonio will be closed by the end of the year, displacing approximately 800 workers. Levi's three Canadian facilities - two sewing plants in Edmonton, Alberta, and Stoney Creek, Ontario, and a finishing center in Brantford, Ontario - are expected to close in March 2004, putting approximately 1,180 employees out of work.

Bruce Raynor, president of the UNITE apparel workers' union, described it as "a tragic day for Levi workers, for their families and for their towns."

He added: "At a time when more than 10 million workers in North America are looking for jobs, these plant closings are yet another indictment of a failed trade policy that is destroying entire industries and communities as companies scour the globe for the cheapest, most vulnerable labour they can find.

"UNITE places the blame for this tragedy squarely at the feet of the Bush administration."

Shuttering its last North American plants marks the end of a two-decade long shift in production to around 500 contractors in 50 countries, including Mexico, China and Bangladesh. In 2002, Levi Strauss closed six US manufacturing plants, eliminating 3,600 jobs. And just two weeks ago, the company said it was laying off 350 US workers, mostly at its headquarters.

Sales peaked at $7.1 billion in 1996 but have fallen for six consecutive years to $4.1 billion. Levi has been fighting back with trendier clothes and lower prices. It even entered the discount jeans market earlier this summer with a new brand called Signature that is sold in Wal-Mart stores.