In early August, the Washington-based Workers Right Consortium (WRC) published its 22-page report on working conditions and practices at three textile fabrics in Maseru, Lesotho. According to WRC, the report's findings are based on investigative research and interviews with workers over a period of two years.
The three textile factories in Lesotho belong to the global jeans manufacturer Nien Hsing Textile Co. Ltd. (Taiwan). Nien Hsing Textile supplies brands such as Levi Strauss & Co., The Children's Place and Kontoor Brands, which also include Lee and Wrangler.
The WRC's report makes it clear that the abuses in the factories studied are extensive and that gender-based violence and harassment massively violate workers' rights under Lesotho's labor laws and international laws. According to WRC, managers and superiors forced many women workers to have sexual relations under threat of termination of employment contracts or promised to engage in more favorable working conditions. Workers were sexually harassed by both managers and employees. Management has often failed to take disciplinary action against perpetrators. This tolerance of harassment by Nien Hsing created a culture of acceptance and fear of reporting among women workers.
Testimony from Nien Hsing International workers concerning incidents of sexual abuse and harassment at the factory include the following quotes:
- “The foreign national managers slap women’s buttocks and touch their breasts. They sometimes take them home for sex. One time we caught a manager having sex with a female worker in the factory. The women in these relationships get promoted easily and get a lot of bonuses.”
- “Male workers like touching females in a way that is not appropriate.”
- “When a woman worker is passing by the supervisor will start talking about her body and saying, ‘she is nice’ to other men standing nearby, then they start talking about the worker’s body too."
After publication of the report, those responsible reacted quickly. Levi Strauss & Co, The Children's Place and Kontoor Brands, jointly stated: "We are committed to protecting workers' rights and promoting well-being in third party factories so that all workers in these facilities, especially female workers, feel safe, valued and empowered. We look forward to working with Nien Hsing Textile, the Worker Rights Consortium, the Solidarity Center and local trade unions and women's initiatives in Lesotho on a comprehensive program to prevent and combat gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace. We believe that this multifaceted program can bring about sustainable change and better working conditions in these factories, which will have a significant positive impact on the entire workforce.”
According to WRC, Nien Hsing Textile is also committed to working with the Solidarity Centre and partner organizations to ensure that its facilities have effective policies and systems in place to combat gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH). Nien Hsing Textile will also provide access to its factories for reporting purposes and instruct its managers to refrain from retaliation against employees who file complaints or otherwise participate in the program. In the event of a significant breach of Nien Hsing Textile's agreements with trade unions and women's rights organizations, each brand has undertaken to reduce production orders until Nien Hsing returns to compliance.
"FIDA* and WLSA* are pleased and grateful for the support of NGOs and unions through the three brands Levi Strauss & Co., The Children's Place and Kontoor Brands for the program to prevent and eradicate gender-based violence and harassment against textile workers in Lesotho," said Thusoana Ntlama and Libakiso Matlho of FIDA and WLSA respectively. "This is the first initiative in Lesotho that brings together workers, trade unions, women's organizations and employers to work towards a common goal: to improve women's socio-economic rights in the workplace.”
"These groundbreaking agreements are an example to the rest of the apparel industry of how to tackle harassment and abuse in apparel supply chains," said Rola Abimourched, senior program director of the Worker Rights Consortium. "The parties have jointly developed a set of binding agreements between Nien Hsing, his brand customers and trade unions and women's organizations to protect workers and punish harassers. Hopefully, this is something that others will see and build on, so that together we can make a difference far beyond a single country."
*FIDA =The Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho
*WLSA = Women and Law in Southern African Research and Education Trust-Lesotho