Three major US brands have vowed to crack down on abuse in Lesotho-based factories that are making their jeans, after an investigation found that women were being forced into sex to keep their jobs.
Levi Strauss & Co, along with Kontoor Brands – which owns Wrangler and Lee jeans – and The Children’s Place signed agreements to end pervasive sexual harassment in five factories, where about 10 000 women make their clothes in the tiny southern African country.
“These breakthrough agreements set an example for the rest of the apparel industry on how to address harassment and abuse,” said Rola Abimourched, senior programme director at the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which discovered the violations.
Garment manufacture – with a focus on denim for export – has grown to become the largest formal sector employer in the 2 million-strong, landlocked Lesotho over the past three decades, providing jobs to about 40 000 people.
The WRC found that women were regularly coerced into sexual activity with supervisors to get or keep their jobs in three factories making jeans for the US brands, all owned by Taiwan-based global jeans manufacturer Nien Hsing Textile. The company employs a quarter of Lesotho’s entire garment workforce.
“All of the women in my department have slept with the supervisor. For the women, this is about survival and nothing else,” the WRC quoted a female worker as saying. “If you say no, you will not get the job, or your contract will not be renewed.”
Under a binding agreement signed by Nien Hsing, along with five trade unions and two women’s rights groups, an independent committee will deal with complaints, identify if any violations have occurred and enforce remedies in accordance with Lesotho law. Nien Hsing will also provide independently appointed members of civil society with access to its factories to interview workers and direct managers to refrain from retaliating against workers bringing complaints.
“We are committed to working to protect workers’ rights and foster wellbeing at third-party supplier factories, so that all workers at these facilities, especially female workers, feel safe, valued and empowered,” the jeans makers said. “We believe that this multifaceted programme can create lasting change and better working environments at these factories, making a significant positive impact on the entire workforce.”
Should there be any material breach by Nien Hsing of the agreement, each brand has committed to reducing production orders until the manufacturer returns to compliance.
“We strive to ensure a safe and secure workplace for all workers in our factories and are therefore fully committed to implementing this agreement immediately,” said Nien Hsing chair Richard Chen. – Thomson Reuters Foundation