An unprecedented, binding, worker-centered program designed to comprehensively address rampant gender-based violence and harassment in several garment factories in Lesotho is succeeding in creating a safe and dignified workplace in Lesotho, attendees of a high-level summit in the southern African country were told last week.
The July 23 summit, “Eradicating Gender-Based Violence and Harassment at Work in Southern Africa,” brought together government, labor and business leaders in Maseru, Lesotho’s capital, to highlight advances in ensuring worker rights and civil-society participation—including the program that arose from groundbreaking, anti-GVBH agreements negotiated collaboratively by local unions and women’s rights groups, multinational brands sourcing from Lesotho, international worker rights groups and a Taiwanese factory group producing clothing for Western markets. The event was co-hosted by the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment and Rights (M-POWER), the Lesotho Federation of Trade Unions and Lesotho Labor Council, and was supported by the Solidarity Center.
“I experienced so much harassment at the factory before the program at Nien Hsing was established,” said garment worker Popoti Ntebe. “Because of the high level of unemployment in our country, workers tend to be harassed because of poverty.”
Before the program launched in 2020, Ntebe said a variety of behaviors by supervisors and managers were common, including bullying, verbal and physical abuse, and sexual harassment. The desperation to have a paying job made workers vulnerable to situations where supervisors would demand sex for letting workers past the factory gate, granting overtime work or not terminating a work contract.
“After you were hired, you were given a 3-month contract. Supervisors threaten to terminate the contract if we don’t agree to have sex with them. And workers desperate for work agree,” she said.
However, since the program of education and awareness raising for workers and managers, “the rate of GBVH has really decreased. This program is so beneficial to workers,” she said.
The program has educated thousands of workers and managers about GBVH and worker rights at Nien Hsing factories in the country. It is the first attempt to end GBVH at work that is binding on the factory to implement the program; enforceable through the economic power of U.S. brands; and grounded in ILO Convention 190 on violence and harassment. And, in another milestone, it established an independent organization, Workers’ Rights Watch, to investigate allegations of violence and harassment, and remediate violations–with workers able to report issues to a newly established toll-free information line.
Other speakers on the panel, “How Workers and Companies are Addressing Gender-Based Violence and Harassment in a Global Supply Chain: Focus on the Lesotho Agreements,” were: Jeffrey Hogue, chief sustainability officer, Levi Strauss & Co. (by video); Samuel Mokhele, secretary general, National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union (NACTWU); Matsie Moalosi, education and awareness raising facilitator, NACTWU; Itumeleng Moerane, information line manager, Federation of Women Lawyers Lesotho (FIDA); Motseoa Senyane, lead assessor, Workers’ Rights Watch; and Leeto Makoro, shop steward, Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL). Thusoana Ntlama, programs coordinator of FIDA Lesotho, moderated the panel.
Samuel Mokhele emphasized the importance of collaboration in addressing GBVH in Lesotho’s garment factories. “We came together with international organizations we are working with, namely the Solidarity Center, then we asked what we can do to eliminate the challenges that workers are facing at work,” he said. “We learned from other countries what kind of models they had and how we could domesticate that into our country.
“This is where all of us came up with the agreement to have a program on gender-based violence and harassment,” Mokhele added.
Speaking on behalf of educators and facilitators, Matsie Moalosi stressed the importance of addressing the root causes of GBVH and collaboration across cultures in addressing GBVH. “There are root causes to GBVH. So we have to remove them: the abuse of power, disrespect of women’s rights and gender equity. We are from different cultures. So we have to know about gender and how it’s diverse in order to accommodate LGBTQIA+ because they are people who are most vulnerable in the workplace,” Moalosi said.
Itumeleng Moerane and Motseoa Senyane emphasized the importance of the principle of confidentiality throughout the process of gathering workers’ reports of GBVH through the information line, then investigating and making determinations on remedies for valid cases, with the express consent of workers.
To date, Senyane said, Workers’ Rights Watch has issued 108 determinations, and five cases are currently under investigation.
But, more importantly, she said, “This program puts justice in the hands of workers.”
The program’s power to right injustices has elicited calls from workers in other factories and organizations, panelists said. Currently, the work is limited to factories owned by Nien Hsing, a signatory to the agreements. However, the need is great.
“Some of our (union) members are interested in the program but it’s only at Nien Hsing, as a pilot. It would be helpful to extend it to other factories,” said Mokhele.
M-POWER is a historic global initiative focused on ensuring working families thrive in the global economy and elevating the role of trade unions and organized workers as essential to advancing democracy. The government of the United States and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) co-chair M-POWER, joined by steering committee members: the governments of Argentina, Canada and Spain; the International Domestic Worker Federation; the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU); the AFL-CIO; and Funders Organized for Rights in the Global Economy (FORGE). Additional partners include the governments of Germany and South Africa, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, ProDESC, Solidarity Center and Worker Rights Consortium.
Event partners for this M-POWER summit were: the Congress of South African Trade Unions; Federation of Women Lawyers Lesotho; Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho; International Domestic Workers Federation; International Trade Union Confederation-Africa; International Trade Union Confederation; National Clothing, Textile and Allied Workers Union; Southern Africa Trade Union Coordination Council; United Textile Employees, Lesotho; Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust; Worker Rights Consortium and Workers’ Rights Watch.
Labor leaders, policymakers and stakeholders from around the world discussed efforts to prevent gender-based violence and harassment at the workplace at a panel discussion, “Ending Violence and Harassment in the World of Work” on Thursday, April 7. The panel was part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Global Deal conference, “A Better Future for Essential Workers.”
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Sabina Dewan, president and executive director of the JustJobs Network moderated the panel. Speakers included: Philippe Symons, Sodexo chief ethics officer; Claudio Moroni, Argentina Minister of labor, employment and social security; Sandra Hassan, Canada deputy minister of labor; Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center executive director; Frances Onokpe, Federation of Informal Workers Organization of Nigeria program officer; and Joaquin Pérez Rey, Spain’s vice minister for employment and social security.
Moroni began the discussion by describing Argentina’s efforts to address workplace violence and harassment. “Argentina has a long history of confronting violence and harassment in the workplace,” Moroni said. “The labor ministry believes there’s no such thing as an effective standard unless it includes behavioral results.”
To that end, Moroni said the ministry is working with female union leaders to include language in collective bargaining agreements to counter violence and develop a law to regulate the implementation of International Labor Organization Convention 190 (C190) in Argentina. Moroni closed his remarks by re-emphasizing the importance of concrete results. “Laws are not effective unless they are translated into concrete action. We are working to make sure these efforts are translated into specific conduct.”
Hassan said that Canada is in the process of C190, “One of our priorities is to continue making sure workplaces are safe and inclusive for everyone,” she said. “The ratification of C190 is a top priority of the government of Canada.” A year ago, Canada brought forth groundbreaking legislation to prevent violence and harassment in federal workplaces. “We also developed a fund that supports partner organization projects that develop sector-specific tools and practices to prevent violence and harassment in the workplace,” Hassan said.
Bader-Blau described the Solidarity Center’s partnership with Lesotho-based trade unions and women’s rights groups, global fashion brands and international rights organizations to secure a safe and dignified workplace for women employed in the country’s predominantly female garment sector. The partnership resulted in a precedent-setting program to comprehensively address rampant gender-based violence and harassment in garment factories. The program was established by two negotiated and enforceable agreements to mandate education and awareness trainings for all employees and managers, an independent reporting and monitoring system, and remedies for abusive behavior.
“These agreements were signed among apparel brands to combat violence and harassment in Lesotho’s garment sector,” Bader-Blau said. “The agreements link businesses to a commitment to eliminate gender-based violence and harassment.
“The program is also focused on culture change,” Bader-Blau said. “Thousands of workers have participated in two-day training sessions about gender-based violence and harassment.” As part of the program, Workers Rights Watch “trains intake counselors who listen with empathy and are empowered to take action.” As a result, “workers are starting to believe that employers are committed to ending gender-based violence and harassment. “The lesson we learned is that worker-led solutions matter.”
Bader-Blau also described what’s needed to replicate the success in Lesotho. “We need to move from good global framework agreements to negotiated solutions that hold suppliers and buyers accountable, not voluntary codes of conduct. We need to hear from global brands if that’s what they want to do. We need to invest in systems that recognize that abuse is common, and we need to invest in systems that establish third-party interventions.”
The Global Deal is a multi-stakeholder initiative for social dialogue and inclusive growth–a partnership of governments, businesses and employers’ organizations, trade unions, civil society and other organizations. The aim of the Global Deal partnership is to benefit from and contribute to, a platform that highlights the value of social dialogue and strengthens existing cooperation structures.
A new briefing from the Solidarity Center detailed the intimidation, arrests and firing that followed the garment worker walk-out in December. The Solidarity Center warned that the “broad crackdown on garment workers, union leaders and worker rights activists in Bangladesh marks a troubling escalation of workers to silence garment workers.”
The Solidarity Center warns that the broad crackdown on garment workers, union leaders and worker rights activists in Bangladesh marks a troubling escalation of efforts to silence garment workers and criminalize their fundamental rights to organize, speak to power and improve their lives and livelihoods.
In a new briefing document, the Solidarity Center outlines the intimidation, arrests and firings that followed a garment worker walk-out in December. It calls on the Bangladesh government and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association to stop the intimidation campaign; respect workers’ legal right to unionize and bargain with employers; negotiate with unions that represent workers’ interests; and raise the garment-sector minimum wage.
Since 2012, the Solidarity Center has recorded hundreds of cases of unfair labor practices, including physical attacks on union leaders, organizers and pro-union workers (and/or their families); kidnappings; threats of death and/or rape; false criminal charges; mass termination; stolen personal property; coercion; harassment; forced signing of “white papers,” that effectively increase production targets; and withholding of access to factory facilities and property (e.g., toilet, elevator).
In 2013, Bangladesh raised the minimum wage for garment workers to $68 a month, the lowest among garment workers in the region. For example, in China it is $265/month; Indonesia, $220; Vietnam, $131; India, $128; and Cambodia, $100. Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, is the 71st costliest city in the world, in line with Montreal, Canada.
The Bangladesh garment sector produces clothing for export, primarily to the United States and Europe. It employs nearly 5 million workers, the majority of them women.
You can defend Bangladesh garment organizers and worker-activists as they help workers who toil in unsafe factories for unfair—or unpaid—wages and who, without a union, cannot exercise their rights.
At least four garment workers lost their lives yesterday and dozens more were injured when the two flat-bed trucks they were commuting to work on collided, according to Solidarity Center staff at the site of the incident. One of the trucks was carrying 50 people and the other more than 70 workers. The deaths left at least eight children without their mother.
The incident happened as the Solidarity Center’s legal team was in court overseeing disbursement of the settlement to victims and surviving families of a bus crash that killed 19 workers and injured another 20 people last spring. Families of the deceased and workers injured in the May 2015 incident attended the court session, where they received meager payments of between $1,500 and $3,000 for the loss of their loved ones or their pain and suffering. After almost a year, a number of workers who survived say they have not received compensation due them from the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).
Cambodia’s garment sector features notoriously dangerous and largely unregulated transportation for its workers, who crowd onto open-air trucks to save money. According to Women’s Wear Daily, “73 garment workers died from traffic accidents while going to work, while 789 were injured” in 2014. Meanwhile, more than 7,000 garment workers were injured and 130 killed while they were being transported to and from factories in 2015, according to the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).
“The extremely high number of fatalities and injuries is completely unacceptable,” said William Conklin, Solidarity Center Cambodia program director. “Garment workers, or any other workers, should not have to fear for their life each day on the commute to and from work. Yet they do because of the confluence of low wages and high disregard for the lives of workers on the part of authorities and factory owners. Labor here is just a commodity.”
Cambodian unions say wages are vital to safe transport for Cambodian workers, and freedom of association is crucial to collective bargaining for higher wages. Just a short distance from the site of Tuesday’s crash, workers at a sweater factory continued their strike demanding, among other things, a $3 increase in the monthly transport allowance. The response from the factory and the authorities was a violent crackdown on striking workers, arresting five and injuring about 30 people, two of them seriously.
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