Millions of workers—most of them women—face intimidation, humiliation, physical and verbal assault, and worse on the job. A July 27, 2023, international summit in southern Africa gathered representatives from the governments of Argentina, Canada, Germany, Lesotho, Spain and the United States—along with dozens of leaders from unions, business and worker and women’s rights organizations—to highlight and advance efforts to end gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the world of work, with a focus on southern Africa.
Hosted by the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment and Rights (M-POWER),* Lesotho Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU) and Lesotho Labor Council (LLC), the daylong summit explored how governments, corporations and unions can eliminate GBVH at work, particularly by ratifying and codifying International Labor Organization Convention 190 (C190) on violence and harassment, and by replicating the negotiated and binding Lesotho Agreements in supply chains elsewhere.
(Photos: Solidarity Center/Institute of Content Engineering)
Kingdom of Lesotho Prime Minister Samuel Ntsokoane Matekane (R) greets U.S. Department of State Special Representative for International Labor Affairs Kelly M. Fay Rodríguez (L) and United States Embassy Lesotho Deputy Chief of Mission Keisha Toms.
“We are all witness to the ever-increasing instances of gender-based violence and harassment at the workplace, not only in Southern Africa but across our beloved continent,” said Prime Minister Matekane, noting that Lesotho has committed to ethical sourcing through the U.S. African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) and the U.S. Millennium Challenge Compact II.
Below: Harry Nkhetse, senior facilitator and leadership coach, Tobaka Consultants, Mountain Peak Business Solutions, and summit co-emcee, with Marieke Koning, co-emcee and ITUC policy adviser.
THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENTS IN ELIMINATING GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE AND HARASSMENT AT WORK: C190
Eradication of GBVH is an urgent, compelling global challenge that will only be resolved when workers have the power to bring about change, for which they need rights to freedom of association and of collective bargaining, said Marieke Koning. The panel included government representatives from Argentina, Germany and Lesotho.
Collective bargaining agreements are the most effective mechanism for implementing progressive laws in Argentina’s experience, said Cecilia Cross, Argentina’s undersecretary for inclusion policies in the world of work (below left). “For Germany, the reason to ratify is that C190 sends such a strong global signal—that it really defines globally what is harassment at work,” said Dr. Anna Montén-Küchel, first secretary, labor and social affairs, German missions in South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini.
“Efforts must be made at the global level as national efforts alone are not enough to tack this issue, which knows no borders,” said Joaquín Perez Rey, Spain’s secretary of state for employment and social economy, by video. “Gender-based violence and harassment have no place in our workplace,” he added.
U.S. GLOBAL LABOR PRIORITIES
Kelly M. Fay Rodríguez described the Lesotho Agreements as a model for other employers in Lesotho and beyond, and M-POWER as a vehicle for mobilizing like-minded governments to participate. “Culture change is required to create the conditions that allow workers, their families and their communities to thrive,” she said.
HOW WORKERS AND COMPANIES ARE ADDRESSING GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE AND HARASSMENT IN A GLOBAL SUPPLY CHAIN: FOCUS ON THE LESOTHO AGREEMENT
“I experienced so much harassment at the factory before the program at Nien Hsing was established,” said Popoti Ntebe, a UNITE member and factory worker. “Because of the high level of unemployment in our country, workers tend to be harassed because of poverty.”
THE ROLE OF TRADE UNIONS IN CREATING SAFER, FAIR AND HEALTHY WORKPLACES FREE FROM HARASSMENT AND VIOLENCE
To protect rights better, unions and other activists must maximize pressure on government, said Teboho Tolo (R), LFTU president, presenting with Zingiswa Losi, president, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). “We must mobilize support!” he said.
WOMEN WORKERS’ PARTICIPATION IN DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE
Sethelile Ntlhakana, Lesotho field representative for Worker Rights Consortium, moderates the session.
Gloria Kente, an organizer with the South African Domestic Services and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), in yellow, leads fellow panelists Mathekiso Tseote, NACTWU shop steward (left); Leboela Moteban, LFTU gender focal person; Thato Sebeko, LLC member; and Puleng Selebeli, United Textile Employees (UNITE) member, in song.
“No struggle can be won without women’s participation,” said Mathekiso Tseote.
CLOSING STATEMENTS AND COMMITMENTS
“The world is watching; this is a precedent,” said Laura Gutierrez, AFL-CIO global worker rights coordinator, about the Lesotho Agreements. The AFL-CIO in partnership with its M-POWER colleagues wants to replicate this kind of program in the region and around the world, she said, because “M-POWER partners together recognize that in order to advance worker rights, ALL workers must have the power and ability to organize freely.”
“We must highlight [C190’s] importance as a key instrument in bringing an end to violence and harassment at work and in particular ensuring that women have a safe place to work,” said Chris Cooter, high commissioner for Canada in South Africa, by video.
The M-POWER GBVH project’s launch in Lesotho marks the milestone that Lesotho has committed to upholding worker rights through promotion of decent work for all workers in all economic sectors, said Richard Ramoeletsi, Lesotho minister of public service, labor and employment, in closing remarks.
MORE FROM THE EVENT
* 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 UnitedStates 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 France, Germany and South Africa, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, ProDESC, Solidarity Center and Worker Rights Consortium.
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.
To address obstacles preventing elimination of gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the world of work, union women and their allies marked International Women’s Day with a public event advocating for ratification of UN International Labor Organization Convention 190 (C190).
Women in Kyrgyzstan are routinely subjected to various forms of discrimination—including unequal pay and lack of opportunities for career advancement—and harassment that includes sexual harassment, verbal abuse and even mockery, said Textile and Light Industry Trade Union Chairman Almash Zharkynbaeva.
“[GBVH] harms women’s mental health and well-being, leading to long-term emotional and psychological trauma,” says Zharkynbaeva.
The event was convened to recognize publication of a March 2 ratification motion that moved the draft law to parliament and, on March 8 International Women’s Day, opened the draft law to public comment on Kyrgyzstan’s draft law public discussion portal.
Publication of the draft law represents a three-year Solidarity Center campaign to educate government officials, labor inspectors, unions and the public on the use of C190 to end violence and harassment in the world of work. The Solidarity Center secured commitments from trade unions and parliamentarians to support the ratification process, advised on language now included in three union bargaining agreements to protect workers from violence and harassment, and coordinated a sectoral union campaign appealing to the Ministry of Labor for ratification of C190.
The convention is a powerful tool to combat discrimination and harassment in the world of work, says Eldiyar Karachalov, chair of the Republican Committee of the Trade Union of Construction and Building Materials Workers, but significant progress will require unwavering commitment from employers, workers and the government.
C190 was adopted during the ILO’s annual meeting in Geneva in 2019 following a decade-long campaign by women trade unionists and feminist activists, led by the International Trade Union Confederation, the Solidarity Center and other labor allies. Since 2019, 25 countries have ratified the convention, of which ten have begun enforcement.
Hear more about the global campaign to end GBVH in the world of work.
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