After revelations of sexual violence in Lesotho garment factories, where jeans are made for brands such as Levi’s, workers fought for better conditions. But now Covid-19 has hit the fashion industry, those gains may be lost.
At one of the biggest garment factories in Maseru, the capital city of Lesotho, the managers never hired enough regular workers to complete the clothing orders that flooded in from Europe and the US. Instead, every morning, a few hours after the sewing machines had started whirring, a male supervisor would stroll out to the factory gates where dozens of women waited. As he approached, they would surge forward, pressing themselves close to the railings and calling out their names.
These women were known as the “dailies” – unemployed cutters and machinists who went from factory to factory looking for a few hours of casual work. Everyone knew what the women had to do to get picked from the crowd. Many would endure repeated harassment and sexual assault to secure a daily wage of just over £6 a day.
“A woman whose babies are going hungry will do anything to put food on the table,” said Thebelang Mohapi, who worked in the payroll department. She regarded the women outside the gate with pity and fear: she understood that the invisible line between her and the “dailies” could vanish at the smallest misstep. The supervisors knew they held all the power. “Nobody ever stopped them. They did whatever they wanted to do.”
Mohapi, at 23, knew that regular workers were also being forced to have sex with their managers to keep their jobs, but she thought that if she worked hard and kept her head down, she would go unnoticed. When she passed her probation period and her supervisor recommended her for a full-time job, she felt years of stress lift from her shoulders.
Then, a few weeks later, just before her shift was due to end, her supervisor came looking for her. He told her to follow him to his office and she watched mutely as he closed the blinds and asked her to shut the door.
“At first he tried to say that he’d fallen in love with me and wanted us to be in a relationship. When I said no, he said I had to show him some gratitude,” she said. He became angry and aggressive, shouting and advancing on her in the gloom. Mohapi fled from his office and, shaking, went straight to the head of human resources at the factory to complain that she was being harassed. By the end of the day she had been fired.
“Everything changed in an instant,” she said. She and her husband had just rented a small one-bedroom house, and she had dreams of saving up to go to nursing college. Her husband was struggling to support her and their baby daughter; he had worked in the garment factory, rubbing holes in the knees of new pairs of jeans to make them look distressed, but had to quit after he got sick from inhaling denim fibres. “I thought this job was the start of something good for us. I knew of the bad things happening at the factory but I was foolish enough to think it wouldn’t happen to me,” she said.
When I met Mohapi in Maseru late last year, she had not worked since the day she was fired, almost 12 months earlier. The factory’s HR manager had put a letter on her file saying she was insolent and insubordinate, and that her work was unsatisfactory. “That letter,” she said, “it has followed me from place to place. I feel angry every day that I was punished and this man is still there, taking home a salary. Nobody cares what is happening to us women there.”
Last year, a report by an NGO, the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), revealed a widespread incidence of rape, sexual assault and harassment at multiple garment factories in Maseru. More than 120 women from three different factories testified that they had been forced to have sex with male supervisors in order to keep their jobs. Some alleged that they had been raped on the factory premises. Some said they had contracted HIV from supervisors who withheld their salaries until they agreed to have unprotected sex. Those who complained were sacked.
These factories in Lesotho supply some of the most famous denim brands in the world. The Taiwanese company Nien Hsing, which owns the factories investigated by WRC, is a major supplier to Levi Strauss, Wrangler and US retailer The Children’s Place. The brands had all carried out social audits and factory inspections, which are supposed to detect human rights and labour violations, but none had picked up the degrading and abusive conditions the female workers endured.
The WRC report was the first to link major brands directly to sexual violence in Lesotho, but garment workers in India, Brazil, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Turkey, China, Bangladesh and Vietnam have also reported being assaulted, stalked, groped, harassed and raped in factories making clothing for international brands. An ActionAid report in 2019 estimated that 80% of all Bangladeshi garment workers had faced sexual violence in the workplace.
“Sexual harassment is the fashion industry’s dirty secret. Brands are rarely called to account for what is happening to women making their clothing,” said Aruna Kashyap, a campaigner and legal advocate for Human Rights Watch.
Levi’s initially told WRC that this was an issue for Nien Hsing to resolve. But faced with such clear evidence of a culture of rape and sexual harassment in their supply chain, they decided they couldn’t ignore it. They negotiated a legally binding agreement with Nien Hsing, the owners of five major factories, unions and women’s groups to put measures in place to protect workers, including stopping the use of “dailies” and creating an independent body to investigate allegations of harassment.
But these gains are now in jeopardy. “At the beginning of this year we genuinely felt optimistic that what happened in Lesotho would create real change for women across the global fashion industry,” said Scott Nova, the executive director of WRC. “But now the world feels like a very different place.”
Covid-19 has hit the global garment industry hard. As the virus kept consumers at home and shuttered high streets, fashion brands responded by using “force majeure” clauses in their contracts with suppliers to cancel an estimated £8bn of orders. Many refused to accept shipments of finished clothing they would no longer be able to sell.
The knock-on effect has been swift and brutal: more than 1 million workers have aleady lost their jobs in Bangladesh. Many are already facing destitution. As wages are slashed and factories close, there has been a wave of attacks on labour rights campaigners and vulnerable workers, including pregnant women in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar. Already, the sexual abuse of women garment workers who desperately need jobs is on the rise.
“What we are now facing is nothing short of a human rights catastrophe for millions of women,” said Nova. “When we released the Lesotho report, we really felt like we’d found the very worst of what could happen to women workers at the bottom of our supply chains. Now, as workers get more desperate to keep their jobs, they will be less able to speak out.”