A discussion on WPFW 89.3 about a landmark pact addressing gender-based violence at garment factories in Lesotho–the first-ever binding negotiated agreement by workers, employers and clothing brands to mandate education and awareness trainings for all employees and managers, an independent reporting and monitoring system and remedies for abusive behavior.
Just as the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the massive global economic and social inequality around the world, with workers in the informal economy and supply chains, and migrant workers—many of whom are women—especially marginalized, so, too, does it offer the potential to build more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and the many other global challenges.
Around the world, unions and worker associations are taking the lead in championing worker rights and in doing so, demonstrating a path forward through collective action to achieve shared prosperity and sustainability. As the novel coronavirus spreads, unions are demanding safe and healthy conditions for workers who must remain on the job, and that they be compensated during forced worksite closures. The following is a small sample of union actions around the globe, reported in large part from Solidarity Center staff in close contact with union partners.
In Haiti, where garment factories were among facilities closed to prevent spread of the virus, workers were asked to return to pick up paychecks (for the days worked prior to the closures) in staggered stages so as to prevent crowding and potential contagion. It is standard practice for workers in Haiti’s garment industry to receive their wages in person, in the form of a cash, because most earn too little to maintain a bank account for check deposits, and paychecks are immediately consumed on basic goods.
Despite a government order to distribute pay to groups of 10 workers at a time, one factory employer simultaneously convened all 2,000 workers to collect their wages, despite the danger. In addition, some factories now are reopening to make masks, in large part for export to the United States, a move that puts at risk workers, their communities and the country’s already fragile healthcare system.
Although some factories have announced measures to protect workers’ health and safety at the factory, they do not adequately address risks workers face going to work as they walk through congested areas and travel up to an hour on crowded tap-taps (covered trucks serving as public transportation). Solidarity Center union partners will play a critical role in monitoring the enforcement of these measures and advocating for additional safeguards.
Four Haitian garment-sector unions, all Solidarity Center partners, issued a joint proposal to President Jovenel Moïse calling on the government and employers to respect International Labor Organization (ILO) protocols on COVID-19 in the world of work. The coalition also called on the government and employers to adhere to Haitian labor code stipulating workers receive pay when the government closes workplaces, and urged government and employers to pay workers the equivalent of the daily wages they earned on average in the three months prior to factory closures. The coalition also recommends the government provide support to informal workers, cease collecting income tax and reallocate funds from the country’s cancelled Carnival event to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The unions include Centrale Nationale des Ouvriers Haïtiens (CNOHA), Confederation des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CTH), Confédération des Travailleurs- euses des Secteurs Public et Privé (CTSP) and ESPM-Batay Ouvriye.
Palestine General Federation of Trade Union members are fanning out to 12 checkpoints along the Israel-Palestine border to address the health needs of the tens of thousands of workers returning home to the West Bank and Gaza as their worksites shut down in Israel, a large-scale movement that is exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.
Iman abu Salah, a member of PGFTU’s organizing team at Bartaa’h barrier near Jenin city in the West Bank, told Solidarity Center staff that three organizers are stationed in two shifts, connecting with between 100 and 200 workers per shift. Union members assist returning workers in completing detailed forms to ensure accurate reporting of health issues, and the unions share their reports with emergency health committees in each district. PGFTU members also are providing workers with information on protecting against the virus, as well as with union contact details in their city or village. Unions and health teams joined together to provide sterilized buses to take workers directly to their home city, village or refugee camp.
In Myanmar, as around the world, garment workers are especially hard hit by the #COVID-19 crisis as global retailers cancel orders, with factory employers laying off workers without pay, firing union supporters and forcing nonunion workers to remain on the job without safety protections, according to union leaders. Garment workers and their unions are mobilizing to demand that factories close for their safety and are seeking full pay for time off during the closures. Unions are pushing for employers to sign agreements that factories will recognize the union when they reopen and maintain all previous wages and benefits.
Unions representing garment workers in Lesotho, where more than 45,000 workers make jeans, T-shirts and other goods for export, are calling on the government to provide full wages to furloughed workers during the 21-day government-imposed lockdown to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. The unions are also demanding that those required to work be provided with free transport in compliance with social distancing guidelines.
Workers have “sacrificed their lives for the country with meager wages and are continuing to keep the economy going as essential workers during this time,” according to the statement by the United Textile Employees, National Clothing, Textile and Allied Workers’ Union and the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho. They “not only contribute to the GDP, but support numerous families, unemployed relatives and poverty-stricken families with their wages.”
The Albanian telecommunications union won a four-hour work day for those not teleworking, as well as company-provided masks, while in Kyrgyzstan, the union federation is urging the government to include remote work standards in the labor code. Unions in Albania, Kyrgyzstan and Montenegro have released statements calling on governments to improve social, economic and public health policy to protect both their membership and society.
In Thailand, Solidarity Center’s union and migrant worker partners are communicating with workers via social media, as unions set up an online Labor Clinic to create and post videos on worker rights and benefits during layoffs and plant closures, and are providing instructions for applying for unemployment and social welfare benefits. Unions are hosting live Facebook forums enabling workers to send in real-time questions and comments. Unions in the aviation sector are calling on the government to protect full-time permanent and subcontracted workers, and provide health and safety measures in line with international labor standards at all workplaces. Migrant worker organizations also are reaching out to migrant workers in Burmese with information on preventing and identifying COVID-19 symptoms and with information on locations to access health care.
The Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) supported the launch of a regional isolation center for workers, and unions throughout Ethiopia are driving anti-stigmatization conversations that seek to encourage workers to report cases of infection and are negotiating with the government to ensure workers are protected on the job during the pandemic.
The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) distributed protective gear to workers, such as masks, gloves, soap and hand sanitizer before shops were closed, and has met with the Kenyan government to lobby for support for informal workers, who comprise some 80 percent of the workforce. Additional Solidarity Center partners—the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers (AUKMW), the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW) and the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA)—are advocating for measures to protect cashiers and other workers exposed to the public.
Indonesia factory-level unions are negotiating masks and other safety protections for workers, and while they are achieving success, a shortage in personal protective equipment is hindering efforts. For example, 60,000 workers, members os National Industrial Workers Union Federation (SPN–NIWUF), a Solidarity Center partner, successfully negotiated with their employer to receive masks, but the company is unable to procure such a large supply. The company recently agreed to allocate some production line to produce the masks to protect workers. Indonesian unions are urging the government to provide support for informal workers, who comprise more than 60 percent of the working population in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.
Led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), unions in South Africa established labor law helplines for their members to address employers’ increased abused of worker rights during the crisis.
In Morocco, where hotels have been turned into hospital facilities, the Federation Nationale des Hotels, Restaurants et Tourisme (FNHRT) is assisting hotel workers in collecting unemployment benefits and maintaining contact with workers across the sectors who have lost their jobs. The FNHRT is affiliated to the Union of Moroccan Workers (UMT).
A new worker-centered, precedent-setting program will comprehensively address the rampant gender-based violence and harassment denying thousands of women garment workers a safe and dignified workplace in Lesotho.
The program, established by two negotiated and enforceable agreements, will cover 10,000 Lesotho garment workers in five factories that produce jeans and knitwear for the global market. Lesotho-based unions and women’s rights groups, major fashion brands and international worker rights organizations, including the Solidarity Center, negotiated with the factory owner, Nien Hsing Textiles, to mandate education and awareness trainings for all employees and managers, an independent reporting and monitoring system and remedies for abusive behavior.
The parties came to the table after U.S.-based Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) documented how the mostly female workforce at three Nien Hsing textile factories was regularly coerced into sexual activity with supervisors as a condition of gaining or retaining employment or promotions, and were persistently sexually harassed, verbally and physically.
The Lesothoan unions and women’s rights groups, all with proven histories of fighting to advance the rights of workers and women throughout the country, are: the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho (FIDA), the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL), the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union, Lesotho (NACTWU), the United Textile Employees (UNITE) and Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust (WLSA)-Lesotho. They will administer the agreement and will serve on the oversight committee.
The Solidarity Center, WRC and Workers United joined these groups to negotiate the two agreements with Levi Strauss, The Children’s Place, Kontoor Brands and Nien Hsing Textiles.
“This is the first initiative in Lesotho that brings together workers, unions, women’s organizations and employers to work towards one common goal of improving the socioeconomic rights of women in the workplace,” Thusoana Ntlama, FIDA programs coordinator and Libakiso Matlho, WLSA national director, said in a joint statement.
Agreements Follow Report Documenting Abuse at Lesotho Factories
Nearly two-thirds of the garment workers WRC interviewed reported “having experienced sexual harassment or abuse” or having knowledge of harassment or abuse suffered by co-workers, according to the report. Women workers from all three factories identified GBVH as a central concern for themselves and other female employees.
“Many supervisors demand sexual favors and bribes from prospective employees,” one worker told WRC investigators. “They promise jobs to the workers who are still on probationary contracts. […] All of the women in my department have slept with the supervisor. For the women, this is about survival and nothing else. […] If you say no, you won’t get the job, or your contract will not be renewed.”
All the Elements to Prevent, Eliminate GBVH at Work
While sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence may happen at any workplace, GBVH is rampant in the global garment and textile industry. Globally, some 85 percent of garment workers are women. They are especially vulnerable to abuse and violence at work because of imbalanced power structures, high poverty and unemployment.
The Lesotho plan “has all the elements needed to prevent and eliminate gender-based violence at work,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “First, there’s real accountability. It is binding and enforceable on all parties. And the global brands and the employer have guaranteed their commitment to enforcing and upholding the code of conduct by signing fully executed, binding and enforceable contracts.”
- Establish an independent organization to investigate issues, fully empowered to determine remedies
- Create a clear code of conduct on unacceptable behaviors and a system for reporting abuse—with garment workers as full participants in creating, implementing and monitoring it
- Establish an education and awareness program that goes beyond the typical harassment and gender violence training. It will be comprehensive and get at the root causes of gender discrimination and violence against women.
Importantly, says Bader-Blau, “the program is sustainable because it’s worker designed, with unions working together with women’s rights groups to deliver it.”
And because the freedom to form unions and collectively bargain has proven essential to addressing gender-based violence and harassment at work and in creating the space for workers to shape a future of work that is fair and democratic, it’s especially key that these agreements also protect workers’ rights to freely form unions, says Bader-Blau.
Nien Hsing, which manufactures apparel for global brands in several countries, signed one agreement with trade unions and women’s rights organizations in Lesotho to establish the GBVH program, and has committed to take recommended action when violations of the program’s code of conduct have been established.
The global brands entered into a parallel agreement in which, should Nien Hsing commit a material breach of its agreement with the unions and NGOs, it will take action, including a potential reduction in orders.
In the past, as one worker told WRC, “The [supervisors accused of harassment] are usually rotated to other departments,” arrangements the plan seeks to eradicate.
Putting the Plan into Action
Lesotho-based women’s rights organizations, unions, the Solidarity Center and WRC will jointly design the education and awareness program and curriculum, with input from the newly created independent investigative organization.
They also will carry out the two-day training, in which all workers and managers will take part. Workers will be paid regular wages during the training.
And importantly, says Bader-Blau, “Empowered workers with a negotiated stake in the agreements can identify and report violence and harassment. And because they have established the terms with the employer as equals, they can be sure that retaliation for reporting abuse and the impunity of abusers will end. Unlike corporate social responsibility programs, the Lesotho program is a contractual agreement with the employer, the brands and the unions, which means everyone is accountable to the code of conduct–with workers able to enforce it as an equal party.”
The program is partially modeled after the Fair Food Program, a set of binding agreements between leading food brands, like McDonald’s and Whole Foods, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Using the type of independent complaint mechanism that will be established by the Lesotho agreements, the Fair Food Program has largely eliminated what had been rampant sexual harassment and coercion in the tomato fields of Florida.
The agreements also build on the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, in which unions were key participants, and recognizes the fundamental role of collective bargaining in negotiating an agreement that is binding on employers and international brands and in bringing accountability to the global supply chain by ensuring the agreement is implemented and enforced.
Funding for the two-year program will come primarily from the three brands, in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID, and the program will kick off in fall 2019.
Leading apparel brands, trade unions and women’s rights organizations sign binding agreements to combat gender-based violence and harassment at key supplier’s factories in Lesotho
With support from U.S. labor organizations, collaborative program creates independent mechanism to investigate complaints and enforce remedies
Maseru, Lesotho; Washington, D.C. (August 15, 2019): Civil society groups, an international apparel manufacturer, and three global brands have agreed to launch a comprehensive pilot program intended to prevent gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in garment factories in Lesotho employing more than 10,000 workers.
Five Lesotho-based trade unions and women’s rights organizations, as well as U.S.-based Worker Rights Consortium, Solidarity Center and Workers United, have signed a set of unprecedented agreements with Nien Hsing Textile and Levi Strauss & Co., The Children’s Place, and Kontoor Brands to address GBVH at five factories owned and operated by Nien Hsing Textile in Lesotho.
The product of extensive negotiations after a Worker Rights Consortium investigation documented a deeply concerning pattern of abuse and harassment in Nien Hsing Textile factories in the country, the agreements reflect a shared commitment to protect the rights of workers, support economic development in Lesotho, and promote Lesotho as an apparel exporting country.
The unions and women’s rights organizations are Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL), United Textile Employees (UNITE), the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union (NACTWU), the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho (FIDA) and Women and Law in Southern African Research and Education Trust-Lesotho (WLSA). Each brand agreement will operate in tandem with a separate agreement among Nien Hsing Textile and the trade unions and women’s rights organizations to establish an independent investigative organization to receive complaints of GBVH from workers, carry out investigations and assessments, identify violations of a jointly developed code of conduct and direct and enforce remedies in accordance with the Lesotho law. The program will also involve extensive worker-to-worker and management training, education, and related activities.
The Solidarity Center, the Worker Rights Consortium, and Workers United will provide technical and administrative assistance and support for the program.
“We are grateful to everyone for their input and ideas over the past several months, which allowed us to reach an agreement that should benefit and protect people – and women in particular – who are so important to the work we and our brand customers do,” said Richard Chen, the Chairman of Nien Hsing. “We strive to ensure a safe and secure workplace for all workers in our factories and are therefore fully committed to implementing this agreement immediately, comprehensively, and with measurable success.”
Attendant to the agreements, the brands and the local organizations agreed to appoint representatives to serve on an Oversight Committee for the program, with equal voting power. Nien Hsing Textile and the Worker Rights Consortium will each have observer status on the Oversight Committee.
Funding for the two-year program will come primarily from the three brands, in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in an inspiring and innovative public-private partnership.
Levi Strauss & Co., The Children’s Place and Kontoor Brands jointly stated, “We are committed to working to protect workers’ rights and foster well-being at third party supplier factories, so that all workers at these facilities, especially female workers, feel safe, valued and empowered. We are pleased to be collaborating with Nien Hsing Textile, the Worker Rights Consortium, the Solidarity Center, and local trade unions and women’s advocacy groups in Lesotho on a comprehensive program intended to prevent and combat gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace. We believe this multi-faceted program can create lasting change and better working environments at these factories, making a significant positive impact on the entire workforce.”
Nien Hsing Textile has committed to work with the Solidarity Center and partner organizations to ensure that effective policies and systems to address GBVH are established at its facilities. In addition, Nien Hsing Textile will provide access to its factories for reporting purposes and direct its managers to refrain from any retaliation against workers bringing complaints or otherwise participating in the program. Should there be any material breach by Nien Hsing Textile of its agreements with the trade unions and women’s rights organizations, each brand has committed to reduce production orders until Nien Hsing returns to compliance.
“FIDA and WLSA are pleased and thankful for the support extended to the NGOs and trade unions by the three brands, Levi Strauss & Co., The Children’s Place, and Kontoor Brands, for the program to prevent and eliminate gender-based violence and harassment directed at women employees in the textile sector in Lesotho,” Thusoana Ntlama and Libakiso Matlho, of FIDA and WLSA, respectively, said. “This is the first initiative in Lesotho that brings together workers, unions, women’s organizations and employers to work towards one common goal of improving the socio-economic rights of women in the workplace.”
“These breakthrough agreements set an example for the rest of the apparel industry on how to address harassment and abuse in apparel supply chains,” said Rola Abimourched, Senior Program Director at the Worker Rights Consortium. “The parties worked together to develop a series of binding agreements between Nien Hsing, its brand customers, and unions and women’s organizations, that guarantee protection for workers and punishment for harassers. Hopefully this is something others will see and build on, so we can collectively make an impact far beyond any single country.”
Background on unions and NGOs involved (with contact information)
About the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho (FIDA)
The Federation of Women Lawyers-Lesotho is a nongovernmental, non-profit-making organization founded and registered in 1988 by women lawyers in Lesotho. The Federation advocates for the promotion and protection of women’s and children’s rights. Over the years, its mandate has expanded to accommodate all legal issues within the public domain that affect the Basotho nation, because an empowered civil society is a crucial component of any democratic system. By articulating citizens’ concerns, FIDA is active in the public arena engaging in initiatives to further participatory democracy and development in Lesotho. There has been significant progress over the last couple of years as a result of legislative changes that have empowered women and children, moving them closer to social justice, among them the: Sexual Offences Act, 2003; Legal Capacity of Married Persons Act, 2006; Land Act, 2010; Child Protection and Welfare Act, 2011.
Contacts: Thusoana Ntlama (Ms.), Programs Coordinator
T: +266 22325466 or + 266 58781491
Mabela Lehloenya, Project Manager
T: +266 63591837
About the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL)
The Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho was formed in 2015 after three unions—Factory Workers Union (FAWUL), National Union of Textile Workers (NUTEX) and Lesotho Clothing and Allied Workers Union (LECAWU)—merged. The union holds the majority in the textile sector and also represents workers in other sectors, including mining, construction, hospitality, retail and other manufacturing.
Contacts: May Rathakan, Deputy General Secretary
T: +266 66020309
About the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union, Lesotho (NACTWU)
The National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union is a trade union established on November 14, 2014. Its mandate is to represent employees at the workplace on all work-related issues. It began by representing textile employees only, but with time and due to the large number of employees in need of the union’s services, it expanded its scope to cover every employee in Lesotho. NACTWU also trains its members about their rights and employer rights at work, and about local and regional labor laws and international labor standards. The union helps its members understand union administration and union structures so that, in the future, they can become leaders at the workplace and within society at large. NACTWU protects employees at work by improving working conditions, wages, health and safety, and by ensuring that their employers comply with labor laws and international labor standards.
Contacts: Sam Mokhele, General Secretary
T: +266 59677595
Tsepang Makakole, Deputy General Secretary
T: +266 58880021
About the Solidarity Center
The Solidarity Center is the largest U.S.-based international worker rights organization helping workers attain safe and healthy workplaces, family-supporting wages, dignity on the job and greater equity at work and in their community. Allied with the AFL-CIO and U.S. labor movement, the Solidarity Center assists workers across the globe as, together, they fight discrimination, exploitation and the systems that entrench poverty—to achieve shared prosperity in the global economy. Founded in 1997, the Solidarity Center works with unions, worker associations and community groups to provide a wide range of education, training, research, legal support and other resources to help build strong and effective trade unions and more just and equitable societies. Its programs—in more than 60 countries—focus on human and worker rights awareness, union skills, occupational safety and health, economic literacy, human trafficking, women’s empowerment and bolstering workers in an increasingly informal economy.
Contacts: Shawna Bader-Blau, Executive Director
T: +1 202 974 8320
Kate Conradt, Communications Director
T: +1 202 974 8369
About United Textile Employees (UNITE)
United Textile Employees is a registered trade union formed by textile workers in 2008 as a class-oriented trade union. Its mandate is to protect worker rights and promote the decent work agenda, which includes rights, social protection, social dialogue and sustainable employment; to fight precarious work that turns workers into slaves; to empower women to stand against patriarchal workplace issues and intergrate gender issues into all union programs; and to build capacity within trade union leadership and women’s structures.
Contacts: Daniel Maraisane, Deputy General Secretary
T: +266 58700696 or +266 58141453
Solong Senohe, General Secretary
T: +266 58089166
About Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust (WLSA)-Lesotho
Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust (WLSA)-Lesotho is a local NGO registered in 2000 under the Lesotho Society Act (1967). It is part of WLSA’s regional network, which operates in Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe and Lesotho. WLSA is a nongovernmental organization pursuing women’s human rights in a legal context. Its mission is to contribute to the socioeconomic, political and legal advancement of women and children in Lesotho. Since 1989, WLSA has been the anchor and lead organization in Lesotho on issues of women’s rights, strategic litigation on women’s rights, empowerment of women and gender equality and has also played a key role in mentoring and providing backstopping for other women’s groups in the country as well as government departments.
Contacts: Advocate Libakiso Matlho, National Director
T: +266-63051492 or +266 50489331
Advocate ‘Mamosa Mohlabula–Nokana: Programs Manager email@example.com
T: +266 58862697 or +266 62862691
About the Worker Rights Consortium
Founded in 2000, the Worker Rights Consortium is an independent labor rights monitoring organization whose mission is to promote, and help enforce, strong labor right protections in global manufacturing supply chains. The WRC conducts factory investigations, documents violations and seeks comprehensive remedies. The WRC has more than 175 university and college affiliates in the United States and Canada and also works with government entities seeking to enforce human rights standards.
Contact: Rola Abimourched, Senior Program Director
T: +1 571 213 4111
About Workers United
Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), is an American and Canadian union that represents 90,000 workers in the apparel-textile, commercial laundry, distribution and other related industries. Workers United is the successor to UNITE, which was formed in 1995 by the merger of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (ACTWU), unions that were an important part of the formation of the U.S. and Canadian labor movement in the early 20th century. Workers United, like its predecessor unions, is a social movement union, engaging its members in social justice struggles throughout their industries and communities, and in addition acting in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in other countries.
Contacts: David Melman, Executive Vice President
T: +1 215 219 1416
Jeff Hermanson, International Affairs Representative
T: +1 213 305 0400
Lesotho is a landlocked country, surrounded by South Africa, that has a population of about two million and a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of $1,318. Lesotho is classified as a lower-middle-income country.
The garment manufacturing sector has expanded significantly in Lesotho over the past 30 years and is now the largest formal sector employer in the country, employing around 40,000. Lesotho has taken advantage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to become one of the largest exporters of garments to the United States from sub-Saharan Africa. Beyond the U.S. market, Lesotho’s products enjoy duty free access to Southern African Customs Union and Southern African Development Community countries, which have a total population of 277 million.
Lesotho garment firms specialize in the production of denim garments. It is estimated that Lesotho’s 42 apparel firms make some 90 million knitted garments annually. With the growth of the apparel industry, companies have begun manufacturing other labor-intensive products in Lesotho, such as car seat covers, clean cookstoves, and circuit breaker switches.