By Poloko Mokhele
Women working in all three of Nien Hsing textile factories in Maseru, sewing brand-name blue jeans, are regularly coerced into sexual activity with supervisors as condition of gaining or retaining employment or job promotion and are harassed sexually via both verbal statements and unwanted sexual contact, on a persistent basis.
In a number of cases described by the women workers, managers or supervisors pressured workers to have sex with them in exchanges for permanent or continued employment.
The vulnerability of women workers at these factories to Gender-Based Violence and Harassment is exacerbated by Nien Hsing’s suppression of workers’ associational rights, which left employees unable to act collectively to raise concerns about, and demand an end to these abuses.
This is according to a report by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent labour rights monitoring organization whose mission is to promote, and help enforce, strong labour right protections in global manufacturing supply chains.
The WRC conducts factory investigations, documents violations and seeks comprehensive remedies. It has more than 175 university and college affiliates in the United States and Canada and also works with government entities seeking to enforce human rights standards.
The WRC said it spent two years investigating labour practices and interviewing women in Maseru at the three garment factories owned by the Taiwan-Based global jeans manufacturer, Nien Hsing Textile Co. Ltd.
The three factories collectively employ roughly 10 000 workers.
They are known as C&Y Garments, Nien Hsing International, and Global Garments. They supply garments to Levi Strauss & Co, The Children’s Place and Kontoor Brands.
Nien Hsing also operates a textile mill in Lesotho, Formosa Textile Company, and has recently opened a fifth facility, called Glory International. All of these facilities are located in the Thetsane Industrial Area in Maseru.
“It is important to note that most workers at the three factories were initially hired on a probationary basis, following which they were or were not offered a permanent position, or on short-term contracts, which might or might not be renewed,” reads the 22-page WRC report on sexual harassment of seamstresses making blue jeans for Levi’s, Wrangler, Lee and The Children’s Place at Nien Hsing Textile factories in Lesotho.
According to the report, a measure of the pervasiveness of Gender-Based Violence and Harassment at the factories is that nearly two thirds of the women workers (24 out of 38) 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.
Overwhelmingly, and without prompting from interviewers, the report adds, women workers from all three factories identified Gender-Based Violence and Harassment as a central concern for themselves and other female employees.
If you say no, you won’t get a job, or your contract will not be renewed… Nine out of ten women have said yes to the supervisor, even those who are married.
In response to the findings, five Lesotho-based trade unions and women’s rights organizations, as well as WRC and other U.S.-based organisations, Solidarity Center and Workers United, have signed a set of unprecedented agreements with Nien Hsing and Levi Strauss, The Children’s Place, and Kontoor Brands to address sexual violence and harassment at five factories owned and operated by Nien Hsing.
The five Lesotho-based unions and women’s rights organizations are Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL), United Textile Employees (UNITE), the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union (NACTWU), the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho (FIDA) and Women and Law in Southern African Research and Education Trust-Lesotho (WLSA).
In a joint statement on Thursday, the organisations said the agreements reflect a shared commitment to protect the rights of workers, support economic development in Lesotho, and promote Lesotho as an apparel exporting country.
The statement read: “Each brand agreement will operate in tandem with a separate agreement among Nien Hsing Textile and the trade unions and women’s rights organizations to establish an independent investigative organization to receive complaints of GBVH from workers, carry out investigations and assessments, identify violations of a jointly developed code of conduct and direct and enforce remedies in accordance with the Lesotho law.”
The program will also involve extensive worker-to-worker and management training, education, and related activities, according to the statement.
Funding for the two-year program will come primarily from the three brands, in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in an inspiring and innovative public-private partnership.
Under the brand agreements, each brand is obliged to reduce orders to Nien Hsing if the independent oversight body determines that Nien Hsing has materially failed to comply with the terms of its agreement – the purpose is to ensure that Nien Hsing has a powerful economic incentive to comply.
The supervisor always proposed sex to me every month, and when I denied the proposal he made the work intolerable. I was disturbed, and I didn’t know what to do.
WRC began investigating Taiwan-based Nien Hsing Textile factories, the owner of the three factories in Lesotho, after hearing from a number of sources that women who produced the blue jeans and other clothes by hand faced gender-based violence.
In dozens of interviews, the women described a pattern of abuse and harassment, including inappropriate touching, sexual demands and crude comments.
The workers’ testimony in the report is anonymous to protect their privacy.
“Many supervisors demand sexual favors and bribes from prospective employees. They promise jobs to the workers who are still on probationary contracts… All of the women in my department have slept with the supervisor. For the women, this is about survival and nothing else… If you say no, you won’t get a job, or your contract will not be renewed… Nine out of ten women have said yes to the supervisor, even those who are married. He takes some of the women to a nearby guesthouse for sex,” one worker said.
“The supervisor always proposed sex to me every month, and when I denied the proposal he made the work intolerable. I was disturbed, and I didn’t know what to do. He used to shout at me to show other workers that I can’t do the work properly. One time, I was doing my job as usual, and he took me to the Human Resource office to complain about me,” another worker said.
“Around June 2018, my supervisor called me to tell me he was coming over to my home. When I asked him why, he said to have sex and that he would promote me. I thought it is better to stay in the same position,” said another worker.
WRC said the acts and pattern of harassment and coercion identified in all three factories constituted violations of Lesotho labour law, which states that “any person who offers employment or who threatens dismissal or who threatens the imposition of any other penalty against another person in the course of employment as a means of obtaining sexual favours or who harasses workers sexually shall commit an unfair labour practice”.
In response, Nien Hsing asserted that no cases of sexual harassment or abuse had been reported to the company from these factories in the 24 months prior to the issuance of the WRC’s findings and that no manager or supervisor at these factories had been disciplined for sexual harassment since 2005.
Nien Hsing also claimed that it conducted its own investigation in response to the WRC’s findings and was unable to verify them.
“In the face of credible testimony from dozens of workers, the company’s denials were unpersuasive,” said WRC.
The abuses the WRC documented in Lesotho represent a severe incidence of a problem that is global in scope.
However, while the problem of sexual harassment and coercion is by no means unique to these factories in Lesotho, the solution now in place is unique in the apparel industry.
It is the first attempt in the industry to empower an independent body to protect women workers from abuse, and it is the first case in which global brands have made a contractual commitment to worker representatives that they will only do business with a supplier if it ends sexual harassment and coercion of women workers. NW