Lesotho Garment Workers Strike Landmark Deals with Global Brands to Tackle Gender-Based Violence

Originally published by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Photo by Agto Nugroho on Unsplash

Female garment workers — who are the majority of the global garment workforce — are systematically targeted and experience the highest rates of sexual harassment and gender-based violence at work.

The five Lesotho trade unions and women’s rights organizations — Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL), United Textile Employees (UNITE), the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union, the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho (FIDA) and Women and Law in Southern African Research and Education Trust-Lesotho (WLSA) — signed separate enforceable agreements with Levi Strauss & Co., The Children’s Place, and Kontoor Brands (Wrangler and Lee jeans).

What are the deals?

The agreements condition these brands’ business with the supplier, Nien Hsing Textile Co., on its cooperation with a worker-led program to eliminate gender-based violence and harassment in the garment factories in Lesotho that produce their clothes.

The two U.S.-based NGOs and one trade union — the Solidarity Center, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), and Workers United — who assisted with the negotiations are non-party signatories to these agreements. The Solidarity Center will lead in assisting the parties involved in implementation of the program.

The agreements signed with the brands will operate in tandem with a separate agreement between Nien Hsing and the trade unions and women’s rights organizations in Lesotho to establish an independent investigative organization responsible for investigating allegations of gender-based violence and harassment at Nien Hsing’s Lesotho factories.

How did we get here?

These agreements arose from an investigation conducted by the WRC, which exposed severe and extensive sexual harassment and coercion affecting 10,000 workers employed at Nien Hsing’s garment factories in Lesotho.

A measure of the pervasiveness of gender-based violence and harassment at the factories is that nearly two-thirds of the women workers with whom the WRC conducted in-depth interviews reported having experienced sexual harassment or abuse or having contemporaneous knowledge of harassment or abuse suffered by co-workers.

Women workers’ vulnerability to abuse is further exacerbated by the power supervisors and managers exert on workers’ continued employment, as well as their conditions of work. Workers who chose to report abuses typically faced retaliation.

These agreements will aim to change the culture of fear and impunity that previously existed in these factories, where the brands’ voluntary codes of conduct and social audits were relied upon to monitor labor conditions.

As outlined in the WRC’s report, the brands sourcing from Nien Hsing’s Lesotho factories did not detect gender-based violence and harassment via their voluntary codes of conduct and monitoring programs, which allowed the abuses to continue.

Further, workers, in offsite interviews, testified that Nien Hsing managers concealed the actual conditions and treatment of workers from brand auditors, including by pressuring employees not to tell the truth about their conditions of work to brand representatives who visited the factory.

Thus, workers’ only option to report these abuses was the internal grievance mechanism of the factory, which essentially entailed asking workers to trust the very management responsible for the abuses.

A new approach

The approach to engaging brands, factory owners, unions and women’s rights groups together to address the root causes of gender-based violence and harassment, including gender inequality and unequal power relations between men and women, contained in these binding and enforceable agreements present a fundamentally different approach.

Collectively, they have the power to hold perpetrators accountable and give workers access to meaningful remedies through the creation of an independent organization to investigate gender-based violence and determine remedies.

Beyond Lesotho, these agreements set a vital precedent in the fight against gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work.