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.
As the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign gets underway, women trade unionists worldwide are building on their momentum to end sexual harassment and gender violence at the workplace.
In Georgia, for instance, the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) “pays huge attention to awareness-raising activities on gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace,” says Raisa Liparteliani, GTUC deputy chairperson.
A key GTUC focus is pushing for government ratification of Convention 190, the International Labor Organization (ILO) treaty addressing GBVH. Over the past year, GTUC, a Solidarity Center partner, created an accessible brochure explaining C190 and distributed it among workers and employers. Together with the Infrastructure Construction Companies’ Association, the confederation developed a GBVH train-the-trainer program for managers and human relations specialists in the industry.
GTUC’s work in strengthening national anti-discrimination clauses and more clearly defining sexual harassment in the country’s labor code has resulted in a big step forward for government ratification of C190, which now is in a high-level action plan.
“GTUC will continue a large-scale campaign for ratification C190, which is an efficient tool to reduce existing gender inequalities in the Georgian labor market and ensure access to equal, decent working conditions for all workers in Georgia, including those working informally,” says Liparteliani.
The annual 16 Days campaign, launched in 1991 by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), is now an internationally recognized time to highlight gender-based violence and starts November 25. It culminates on December 10, International Human Rights Day. (Check out the organization’s Action Menu for 16 Days campaign.)
Union Activist Mobilize Around C190
Since ILO adoption of C190 in 2019, union leaders have conducted extensive education and awareness training among members, a process that has mobilized members to confront GBVH at their workplaces through collective bargaining and champion ratification of C190. The convention must be ratified by individual governments to be in force in each country. So far, 22 countries have ratified it, including Albania, Argentina, Nigeria and South Africa.
The ILO, which includes representatives of workers, governments and employers, adopted C190 after women trade unionists and feminist activists worked for more than a decade for its passage in a campaign led by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the Solidarity Center and other labor allies.
“With this convention, we’re trying to address violence that is geared toward workers,” says Brenda Modise. “It doesn’t matter whether you are a man, a woman, old, young, LGBTQ community or anyone, but we are addressing violence and harassment in the world of work against all workers.” Modise, a social justice officer with the domestic workers union, Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA), spoke with Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau on the latest Solidarity Center Podcast. The episode also features authors of a new book, “Stopping Gender-Based Violence and Harassment at Work: The Campaign for an ILO Convention.”
On the Solidarity Center Podcast, co-authors Jane Pillinger and Robin Runge share how union women who work at factories, on farms, in restaurants, taxis and offices successfully campaigned for C190 and describe the powerful movement they created with human rights organizations, feminist organizations, disability rights organizations and others around the world. The episode includes a clip from an earlier interview with Modise, who describes her experiences on the front lines of the campaign.
The survey, commissioned by the country’s Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations, found the majority of violence and harassment at work occurs in the informal sector, where women workers are especially vulnerable, working in homes as domestic workers, in markets as vendors and in agriculture.
Recent union campaigns by Solidarity Center partners among agricultural workers in Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia are seeking to end the rampant sexual harassment and violence women experience in crowded and unsafe trucks and other forms of transport they must take to reach the fields.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, women, particularly those in the informal economy, were especially vulnerable to GBVH at the workplace. At the recent ITUC Congress, the Solidarity Center convened a panel of union activists who discussed how the pandemic affected women in the world of work and discussed strategies to increase social protections and expand them to workers who have not previously been covered, especially marginalized groups.
Speaking on the panel, Liparteliani said that in 2022, the GTUC “developed research with the support of Solidarity Center on impact of the pandemic on women in three sectors: textile, service and health care,” recommending social protection with a special focus on gender-based violence and harassment.
Caroline Khamati Mugalla, executive director of the East African Trade Union Confederation (EATUC) and Rosana Fernandes, leader of the Chemical Workers Union of São Paulo, Brazil also spoke on the panel, A New Social Contract for an Inclusive, Equitable Recovery.
When women agricultural workers in Morocco joined to form their first union and negotiate a contract that established gender equality and prohibited sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence on the job, their collective action followed years of Solidarity Center training and support.
This GivingTuesday offers a chance to support violence-free workplaces—and all Solidarity Center efforts to ensure workers everywhere have dignity on the job. Giving Tuesday is not just one day—it is a global social movement that fuels more generosity in service to building a more just and equitable world.
“All of these things depend on the support of individuals like you who believe that labor rights are human rights, that all workers deserve dignity—and that unions make this real for workers,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau.
Informal workers are routinely excluded from economic and political decision-making, and their work is systematically devalued and made invisible. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified these dynamics and has resulted in skyrocketing rates of domestic violence, bringing a renewed urgency to address poverty, exclusion and precarious work.
Labor leaders, organizers and advocates from around the world gathered on December 2 for a virtual panel discussion of the impact of gender-based violence and harassment (GVBH) on workers in the informal economy. The discussion was sponsored by the Global 16 Days Campaign (coordinated by Center for Women’s Global Leadership), Global Alliance of Wastepickers, HomeNet International, International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), Solidarity Center, StreetNet International and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).
Robin Runge, Solidarity Center Equality and Inclusion Department co-director, moderated the panel, which included: Chidi King, branch chief, Gender, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, International Labor Organization (ILO); Carmen Britez, vice president, International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF); Janhavi Dave, international coordinator, HomeNet International; Sonia George, general secretary, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and a SEWA homeworker; and Saraswati Rijal, central committee member, Independent Transport Workers Association of Nepal (ITWAN).
Chidi King, branch chief, Gender, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, International Labor Organization (ILO)
Chidi King framed the discussion, citing the themes and issues to be addressed. “As we all know, violence and harassment in the world of work is a manifestation of the societal issue that has deep roots in the continued tolerance of violence and harassment,” King said, “particularly towards women and population groups that too often find themselves on the margins of society.”
Women workers, who make up the majority of informal economy workers in many countries, are disproportionately affected. “Violence and harassment have deep roots in social norms and stereotypes,” King said, “especially around the roles assigned to men and women.
“And as a connection to inequality and discrimination suggests,” King added, “violence and harassment is also deeply rooted in unequal power relations, and the abuse thereof, in our societies, as in the world of work.” Thus workers play an important role in addressing and remedying violence and harassment, including addressing the impacts of domestic violence in the world of work.
ILO Convention 190 (C190) protects all workers and recognizes that for many the workplace is not an office or factory setting, but can be a public space or private. C190 protects informal economy workers, who work in their own homes or the homes of others, and recognizes the impact of domestic violence in their workplaces.
However, many countries’ laws do not recognize homes as workplaces, leaving many workers in the informal economy lacking protection against violence and harassment and without access to social safety nets. During the COVID-19 pandemic, informal workers have experienced high rates of domestic violence and difficulty accessing social support services that have been put on hold.
Saraswati Rijal spoke about working with women tuk-tuk drivers in Nepal to build support for women workers during the pandemic and supporting victims of domestic violence. COVID-19 has only made conditions worse, as women workers are forced to choose between their and their families’ health or earning an income and risking being subjected to unnecessary hazards.
Workers in the informal sector “do not have any economic security,” Rijal said. “And moreover, due to COVID-19, they are deprived of their daily wages, and they are also unable to earn their living and sustain their livelihood.”
Carmen Britez spoke of IDWF’s work with the Ministry of Labor in Argentina to develop exclusive protection for domestic workers around domestic violence. Domestic workers suffer not just from not having registered employment, but from also having no protection against violence. Britez said that lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many domestic workers to be shut in with their abusers.
Argentina ratified C190 in November 2020. Britez emphasized C190’s role as a tool to push for national legislation: “We were pushing for this convention so that it could become another tool in changing national law. If we have laws that protect us around violence, we want something that would not only include specific sectors but all sectors at a national level. Because that’s really important for us as women workers.”
“It’s also important to say this is not just an issue facing women. “We do account for the majority of those who are suffering from this kind of violence,” Britez added. “But it also is important for us to let our [union] leadership, who are often men, to let them know that it’s also their responsibility to push for a national law on this topic.”
To underscore the urgency of the issue, Britez shared that during her remarks her center received news of a woman whose employer broke her wrist.
Janhavi Dave spoke of the scale of the problem of domestic violence and its impact on women workers. “According to one of the recent ILO studies, there are over 260 million home-based workers, which is around 8 percent of global employment. This was prior to the pandemic, and this number has only increased,” Dave said. “According to the same study, 56 percent of home-based workers are women. So we’re actually talking about a huge section of women workers.”
HomeNet South Asia, a regional organization, conducted a study on the impact of domestic violence on home-based workers in Nepal, and is conducting similar studies in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. “One of the key findings was that home-based workers faced rampant domestic violence,” Dave said, “which has a direct impact not only on physical and emotional health but also on productivity.”
Sonia George, general secretary, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)
SEWA’s Sonia George introduced a traditional bamboo worker, who shared her experience as the sole earner for her family, which included her husband and their two children. Her husband, she said, was supportive in the beginning of the marriage, but became physically violent after he was out of work. Sibimol was forced to leave her traditional job and go to work in a latex factory in order to earn a livelihood and escape domestic violence at home.
“This is the experience of most of the women in India,” George said after Sibimol shared her story. “We know that most of these women have experienced domestic violence. One of the statistics states that during the time of COVID, domestic violence has increased 2.5 times. That means women in India are suffering that much more violence.”
Lorraine Sibanda shared how COVID-19 also worsened conditions for women workers in Zimbabwe. “The pandemic exposed adverse challenges for women,” Sibanda said, “because they are performing unpaid care work, domestic care work, on top of providing for their families.” Measures to control the spread of COVID-19 compromised livelihoods and increased economic strain on families supported by the informal economy.
Lockdowns and restrictions also increased rates of domestic violence. “It meant that women and girls were locked down in their homes,” Sibanda said. “They were forced to spend time enclosed with families, and possibly many were trapped at home with their abusers.”
Married and partnered women also faced physical violence from husbands and male partners for refusing to hand over their earnings. “They would be abused physically because they refused to hand over money, which they’ve been working for, to their partners, so that their partners could either go for a drink or use that money,” Sibanda said. She also suggested that Zimbabwe had seen an increase in child marriage. ”There was this rampant trait of people marrying off children in order to gain economically.
“All in all, the pandemic amplified the vulnerability of women and girls,” Sibanda concluded.
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