Groups force Lesotho clothing factories owner to end gender-based violence
Female workers in Nien-Hsing garment factory in Lesotho. Shawna Bader-Blau, AFL-CIO Solidarity Center.

WASHINGTON—A landmark alliance of unions and women’s rights groups in the Southern African nation of Lesotho teamed up to pressure a Taiwanese factory owner into signing a pact to end gender-based sexual harassment and violence at its plants, the director of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center says.

In an August 29 interview with Chris Garlock on WPFW’s Your Rights At Work, center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau said the pact, which she called “a collective bargaining agreement,“ covers 10,000 female garment workers toiling in large factories owned by Nien Hsing Textiles, a major supplier for western brands Levi Strauss, The Children’s Place and Kontoor.

International workers’ rights groups, including the Solidarity Center, helped broker the pact, Bader-Blau told Garlock and guest co-host Mark Gruenberg. The pact not only bans the violence and harassment, but has enforcement mechanisms against bosses who still try to sexually exploit the women, a Solidarity Center fact sheet says. And the big western buyers will fund the enforcement.

“It’s really exciting to see trade unions and women’s groups come together to fight this scourge all over the world,” Bader-Blau said.

Gender-based violence and sexual harassment is particularly rampant in worldwide clothing manufacturing the Solidarity Center found. Some 85% of world garment workers are women, they’re concentrated in the lowest-paying jobs and their pay is between 60% and 75% of that paid to men doing similar or identical work.

Female garment workers in developing nations often toil 10-16 hours daily, six days a week, the report adds. And in Lesotho and other supplier nations, supervisors often forced female workers into sex to get or keep jobs.

“If a worker has to sleep with someone to get a job or get overtime, we’re talking about repression through sexual power,” Bader-Blau told Garlock.

It’s not just Lesotho, the Solidarity Center’s fact sheet adds.

For example, 28% of Cambodian female garment workers had to have sex with bosses to get sewing machines fixed, to extend individual employment contracts, or get bonuses. And 71% of Indonesian garment workers suffered verbal, physical, psychological or sexual abuse.

It also still occurs in U.S. sweatshops. In the blog Feminists Against Sweatshops, Olivia Given reported 22 years ago on conditions she found in a garment factory on 38thh Street in Manhattan where the workers were mostly Hispanic or Asian.

Besides working conditions that reminded her of the 1890s sweatshops she learned about in history books, Given added: “We heard about the widespread sexual harassment: Managers call female workers into the back of the workroom, try to touch and hug them and threaten to fire them if they refuse. We were told of dehumanizing verbal and physical abuse.”

“Almost no one spoke English and most workers were unaware of their rights as workers, independent of their immigration status. The managers prefer an uninformed and frightened pool of workers…New workers simply take the place of the old: Haitian, Chinese and Central American immigrants have replaced the Slavs, Jews and Italians of a century ago, and still it’s women who suffer.”

Sexual exploitation of female garment workers is so bad worldwide that governments, unions and even textile firms signed an international pact earlier in 2019 to end the scourge. The Lesotho agreement is the first nationwide agreement to implement it.

And one big difference Bader-Blau told Garlock is the ultimate buyers of the goods – the big retailers such as Levi Strauss – will take responsibility for the state of the garment workers in their supply chain from Lesotho. That’s not the case where retailers “voluntarily” agree to improve working conditions, such as after a notorious sweatshop fire killed dozens of workers in Bangladesh in 2013.

The Lesotho pact also includes individual contracts between the five Lesotho groups – the Democratic Union of Lesotho, the United Textile Employees, the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union, the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho and Women and Law in Southern African Research and Education Trust-Lesotho – and Nien Hsing, a lead non-governmental group in the negotiations, the Workers Rights Consortium, said.

“These are binding contracts,” Bader-Blau told Garlock.

Nien Hsing and the five Lesotho groups will enforce the main pact and the pacts with each through “an independent investigative organization to receive complaints of 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,” WRC added. There will also be extensive worker and management training and education in identifying and preventing sexual abuse and exploitation on the job.

“Companies like Levi Strauss don’t own the factories” where the female workers toil, Bader-Blau said. “They outsource it to low-wage countries where rights at work are suppressed, there’s lower union density,” and firms hire female workers, she added.

That’s certainly true in Lesotho. International Labour Organization data show the last time union density was measured there, in 2010, it was 5.8%.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.