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.
Myrtle Witbooi, a fierce advocate of domestic worker rights who recently passed away, is remembered in this Solidarity Center Podcast episode by Solidarity Center Domestic Worker Global Lead Alexis De Simone. We also hear from Myrtle herself, as she accepted the AFL-CIO’s Human Rights award on behalf of the International Domestic Worker Federation, which she helped form and led.
“Her deep conviction that when women, when the working poor, when
women of color, when workers in the Global South, when union sisters and brothers decide to join forces, decide that they are in it together, there is no option but victory,” says says De Simone.
“That is so much of Myrtle’s legacy.”
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This episode is a re-broadcast from the podcast, Labor History Today, produced by the Metro Washington Labor Council.
Myrtle Witbooi accepts ALF-CIO George Meany–Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award for IDWF.
Myrtle began her career in the 1960s as a domestic worker in apartheid South Africa. A newspaper article about domestic workers moved her to write a letter to the editor. Myrtle was just 18 when, with the help of a local journalist, she convened the first meeting of domestic workers in Cape Town in 1965.
“And I went up to the stage and I said, ‘Good evening. I am a domestic worker, just like you. I think we need to do something for ourselves because nobody is going to do anything for us.’ And they all started clapping and said, ‘You are going to lead us.’”
It was the beginning of a lifelong fight to secure rights and protections for domestic workers.
At that time, domestic workers in South Africa were not allowed to move freely and needed identification to enter the White neighborhoods where they worked.
“We needed an ID to identify that we were allowed to come to the White area to work. But we could go to church,” Myrtle said. The workers formed a committee in 1979 because they could not form a union. Their church meetings served as cover for committee meetings, even after the government banned all labor organizations in 1986 for fear they were ANC-affiliated.
As general secretary of SADSAWU, Myrtle fought for a national minimum wage increase and compensation for domestic workers injured on the job. In 2011, she helped lead an international coalition of domestic workers to secure passage of the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C 189), which ensured domestic workers the same basic rights as other workers. The convention marked the unprecedented involvement of informal women workers in setting ILO standards.
Myrtle became the first chair of the International Domestic Workers’ Network—and when the network formalized as a federation, Myrtle was elected the first president of the International Domestic Workers’ Federation, the only global union founded and led by women of color.
Myrtle was serving her second term as IDWF president when she passed. Under her leadership, the federation expanded to 87 affiliates in 67 countries, representing 670,000 domestic workers. Their “nothing about us without us” motto that achieved ILO Convention 189 served as the clear model for the fight to eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work, resulting in the passage of ILO Convention 190 in 2019—an effort led by affected workers, largely women workers and informal workers.
Upon news of her passing, tributes came in from domestic workers around the world, sharing stories of how Myrtle inspired courage among workers who have been made invisible by employers and governments to raise their voices and stand firm together in their demands for dignity and respect.
“Myrtle was bold, had a clear moral vision and was relentless in building up alliances to see a vision of equal rights for domestic workers to fruition. Myrtle’s legacy of courage, justice and sisterhood will live on for generations,” said Alexis De Simone, global lead for domestic worker rights at the Solidarity Center.
A new Labor Center in Mexico will advise workers about their rights and how to mobilize and organize unions and collectively bargain. The Labor Center, at the Autonomous University of Querétaro in central Mexico, is supported by the Solidarity Center and the UCLA Labor Center.
“The aim is to strengthen and promote the full recognition of labor rights, freedom of association and organization, and the democratic participation of workers through research, linkage and accompaniment,” said Labor Center Director Dr. Javier Salinas García. Salinas spoke at a recent Solidarity Center event in Mexico to announce the opening.
The Labor Center comes three years after Mexico’s government announced a series of comprehensive labor reforms to establish a democratic unionization process, address corruption in the labor adjudication system and eradicate employer protection (“charro”) unions prevalent in the country.
The Labor Center is “a way to respond to the needs of the situation,” said Beatriz García, Solidarity Center Mexico deputy program director.
“I think we all agree that Mexico is going through a historic moment. The labor reform responds to the demands that have been the objectives of the struggle of many workers for years, for decades, and reflects some positive practices of the independent unions,” she said.
The event featured a panel of independent union members and leaders who discussed the future of the labor movement in Mexico in the wake of historic labor law reforms.
Panelists explored the role that democratic and independent trade unions in promoting labor reform implementation in Mexico three years after the 2019 Labor Reform and negotiations of the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (UMSCA/T-MEC).
Speakers shared how they are using the tools of labor reform to organize on their worksites.
“We are the delegates, and we call our colleagues to share information about the Union League,” said Sonia Cristina García Bernal. “We have helped colleagues who were told they were going to be fired without severance pay. We have been able to get them severance pay. We have been able to get them rehired.”
“After these three years, the tool that we use the most is fast response mechanisms,” said Imelda Guadalupe Jiménez Méndez. “This has been a very important tool.”
In addition to Beatriz García, speakers included: Imelda Guadalupe Jiménez Méndez, Secretary for Political Affairs, the Miners Union (Los Mineros); Julieta Mónica Morales, General Secretary, Mexican Workers’ Union League (Liga Obrera Mexicana); Rita Guadalupe Lozano Tristán, Mexican Workers’ Union League (Liga Obrera Mexicana); Alejandra Morales, General Secretary, Independent Union of National Workers in the Automotive Industry; and Sonia Cristina García Bernal, Special Delegate, Mexican Workers’ Union League (Liga Obrera Mexicana).
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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