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.
After a coalition of unions and human rights organizations successfully campaigned for Nigeria’s government to ratify a global treaty on violence and harassment in the world of work, including gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH), they knew that was just a first step toward ensuring violence-free workplaces in the country.
Now, the hard work begins to implement the protections in International Labor Organization Convention 190, (C190), speakers said during a panel sponsored by the International Lawyers Assisting Workers (ILAW) Network.
“The campaign does not stop at ratification. It must grow at the grassroots level, at the [factory] floor level, at the [union] branch level,” said Rita Goyit, head of the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) Department of Women and Youth and secretary of the NLC’s National Women Commission. “The struggle continues.”
Goyit was among speakers at a June 21 event launching a new ILAW Network report that analyzes the current legal framework regarding violence and harassment at work, particularly GBVH, and the status of international treaty obligations in Nigerian law. The report identifies key areas of reform to bring Nigerian laws and policies in line with C190 provisions and how legal practitioners can utilize existing law to seek justice for survivors of GBVH and other abuses at work.
It finds that “the government should work with trade unions, women’s right organizations and other human rights organizations to create safe, gender-responsive, effective complaints procedures, including measures to address barriers to reporting. There is a critical need for strong mechanisms to protect workers who report violence and harassment from retaliation.”
Speaking on the panel, Agomo advocated holistic legislation “that mainstreams health and welfare issues, safety issues, to include issues arising from gender-based violence and harassment.” She noted that C190, which the ILO adopted four years ago last week, is broad enough to ensure that all workers achieve violence-free workplaces, including while commuting to work and at related events. The convention covers workers in the formal as well as informal economies. Thirty-one countries have ratified C190, with the Nigerian government ratifying it in November.
Union leaders trained 25 vendors to form and lead a task force on GBVH in the market. The task force developed a code of conduct to prohibit GBVH and create a mechanism for reporting cases. They distributed information leaflets and helped raise awareness among vendors about their rights to a violence-free workplace. This resulted in the identification of multiple cases of rape and sexual assault against minors, who often assist their parents in the market. Five people have been arrested and now are awaiting trial for allegedly violating the rights of children between 9 and 14 years old, said Agnes Funmi Sessi NLC Lagos State Council chairperson.
“People are now being able to know their rights, there are mechanisms to report GBVH and there are people trained in the market for emergency response,” she said. The effort is now expanding to another large market in the area.
The NLC also is reaching out to unions to ensure their constitutions and collective bargaining agreements adequately address sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence at work and are training gender officers to educate union members on their rights to violence-free workplaces.
The campaign urging the government to ratify C190 involved a broad, union-led coalition, said Afusatu Shaibu, national chairperson, Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) Women Commission. Among those organizations is the Advocacy for Women with Disabilities Initiative. Women workers with disabilities face multiple hurdles when confronted with GBVH at work, said Patience Ogolo-Dickson, the organization’s executive director.
“It’s very difficult for a person with a disability to get a job, and when you are faced with speaking out, you fear losing your job and think it’s better to keep silent. Many don’t know about the need to access to justice and need to be educated on C190.”
The online panel was moderated by Jacquline Wambui Wamai, ILAW Network regional coordinator for sub-Saharan Africa, and a recording will be available in coming days.
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.
For more than 10 years, union women who work at factories, on farms, in restaurants, taxis and offices campaigned for an international treaty to end gender-based violence at work. In 2019, they achieved a huge success when the International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted Convention 190 to end violence and harassment at work.
Authors of a new book share these women’s stories on the latest Solidarity Center Podcast and describe the powerful movement they created collaborating with human rights, feminist, disability rights and other organizations around the world.
“These are garment workers, domestic workers, agricultural workers from all over the world, and have been told their whole lives, ‘Well, you can’t do that. You can’t negotiate a global treaty.’ It’s absolutely false.”
Along with Runge and Jane Pillinger, co-authors of “Stopping Gender-Based Violence and Harassment at Work: The Campaign for an ILO Convention,” the episode highlights South African union activist Brenda Modise, who describes her experiences on the front lines of the campaign
“The thing about this convention is that it brings women together across the world, irrespective of your age, irrespective of your culture, irrespective of all the things. It doesn’t matter whether you speak English, you speak Portuguese, you speak French, it brings us together. As soon as you say C190, it brings women together and it makes a force,” says Modise.
“One of our main conclusions is that really remarkable things happen when women stand in their own power,” said Pillinger.
Adds Runge: “Only through collective action with freedom of association and collective bargaining is it really possible to truly prevent and eradicate gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work.”
The trafficking of agriculture workers, including children, is widespread globally, and “practices of exceptionalism” limit workers’ rights to freedom of association, organizing and collective bargaining, according to a new report on trafficking in persons in agriculture from United Nations Special Rapporteur Siobhán Mullally.
“Characterized by high levels of informality, lack of oversight and protection, trafficking in persons remains a serious concern within the agricultural sector, affecting both adults and children,” she writes.
The report notes that while the COVID-19 pandemic saw agricultural workers designated as “essential,” worker protections did not follow. Indeed, temporary, seasonal and migrant workers are provided limited legal coverage, and restrictive migration policies persist despite the demand for agricultural workers.
Discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, migration status, gender and disability creates conditions within which trafficking occurs with impunity.
Land inequality, particularly affecting women and girls, drives exploitation, including trafficking for forced labor.
The agriculture sector employs an estimated 28 percent of the total global labor force and an estimated 60 percent of the labor force in low-income countries. Because it is characterized by high levels of informal and seasonal employment, the risks of exploitation are also high.
Discrimination based on migration status leaves workers vulnerable to trafficking.
Gender inequality in land ownership and tenure contributes to poverty, dependency and risks of violence, including trafficking of women and girls. Women are estimated to make up 20 percent of the world’s landholders but account for 43 percent of agricultural workers.
Indigenous women and girls may experience increased risks of trafficking due to the intersection of discrimination and violence, based on gender, race, ethnicity, indigenous origin and poverty.
People with disabilities may be particularly at risk of trafficking in agricultural work, where there is limited oversight and monitoring of worker rights.
Agriculture is the entry point for child labor, accounting for 76.6 percent in child laborers ages 5-11 and 75.8 percent in children ages 12-14. Children who travel with parents migrating for work often miss out on their education, as well.
The Special Rapporteur also highlighted that recruitment practices for the sector–particularly of seasonal, temporary and migrant workers–increase risks of trafficking for forced labor. Recruitment processes and substantial recruitment and other fees often lead to debt bondage.
Meanwhile, “intensive agriculture and agribusinesses contribute negatively to climate change, reflecting the wider nexus between trafficking in persons, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis,” she writes.
The protection of all workers and their families “is essential to prevent trafficking,” she says, urging governments to, among other urgent actions: “Strengthen the capacity of trade unions, civil society organizations and human rights defenders to support agricultural workers, including through effective protection of rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly and to collective organizing and collective bargaining, without discrimination.”
The Special Rapporteur’s report was bolstered by a submission from the Solidarity Center related to the conditions for migrant workers in Jordan’s agriculture sector. The submission noted:
Migrant workers work very long hours in hazardous conditions that lack occupational, safety and health (OSH) standards, medical care and overtime compensation. Forced overtime is an indicator of forced labor under ILO standards. The agricultural sector in general is an informal economy sector, and the work is usually temporary or seasonal. Agricultural areas are isolated and far from service centers; therefore, agricultural workers who suffer from labor and human rights violations do not have access to justice. Forced labor and wage theft are common violations, although usually not reported because of limited access to justice, absence of labor inspection and fears of retaliation and other threats workers face, especially undocumented or irregular workers. Because these workers were not recognized as workers under Jordanian labor law until May 2021, they lacked access to labor courts and were forced to file complaints through civil courts, which do not exempt court fees, making this an inaccessible complaint process for agricultural workers.
The kafala system requires migrant workers to be fully reliant on their employers for legal status. In the case that an employer does not renew a work permit, the worker is punished with deportation and a ban from returning to Jordan for three years. Workers are often deported without receiving their owed wages and other compensation–a form of wage theft, which is also an ILO indicator of forced labor. In cases where agricultural workers leave a workplace to escape harassment, rights violations and forced labor without reporting such violations, they are subject to an overstay fine, which is 1.5 Jordanian dinars per day (approximately $2) and they are subject to detention and false or retaliatory theft accusations by their employers, essentially becoming undocumented workers. Migrant workers rarely if ever report violations, fearing employer harassment or retaliation. Undocumented workers are victims of exploitation by brokers and fixers who charge excessive fees for work permits. A Syrian woman worker said, “Syrian agricultural workers’ wages are the lowest not because they accept to work for low wages but because the shaweesh (the middleman) takes a percentage of their wages.”
The Special Rapporteur’s report cited these examples and supported the Solidarity Center’s conclusion in its submission: “Trade unions are important to combat forced labor and other forms of labor trafficking and exploitation, and to raise workers’ awareness about their rights and the available services and access to justice channels.
“The explicit exclusion of both migrant workers and workers in the agricultural sector is a violation of these workers’ fundamental right to freedom of association under the Constitution of Jordan and international human and labor rights as enshrined in the ICCPR, ICESCR and ILO Conventions 87 and 98. The right to freedom of association is fundamental in a workers’ ability to advocate for her/his own rights, protect themselves from forced labor, and ensure protections from GBVH, and other occupational hazards.”
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