Rampant sexual abuse in Lesotho factories

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Limpho Sello

SEXUAL abuse of women is rampant in Lesotho’s textile factories, a recent report by the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC) has revealed.

The WRC’s findings are based on an extensive investigation of labour practices at these facilities, including in-depth, offsite interviews with workers conducted in 2017, 2018 and early 2019.

The WRC is an independent United States-based labour rights monitoring organisation. It investigates working conditions in factories around the world with the aim of identifying and exposing the practices of global brands and retailers “that perpetuate labour rights abuses”.

The WRC’s report, released on 15 August 2019, noted that there was systematic sexual abuse of female workers by local and foreign managers at the textile firms in Lesotho. The factory managers allegedly coerced women to have sex with them, threatening that the workers would lose their jobs if they objected.

The abuse took place across three factories owned by Taiwanese international jeans manufacturer, Nien Hsing Textile.

“The WRC identified sexual harassment and coercion of women workers by male managers, supervisors, and co-workers, across the three factories,” the WRC states.

“The WRC found that these abuses were extensive, affecting many of the women working at the factories. The gender-based violence and harassment identified at these facilities violated workers’ rights under Lesotho’s labour laws, international standards and the codes of conduct of the brands whose products these employees produce.”

The report has prompted local civic society, factory workers and the WRC to sign an agreement to combat gender-based violence (GBV) and other forms of harassment at the factories.

The groups will work with Nien Hsing Textile management to educate workers on how to report GBV and harassment on a two-year project that will start in October this year. The project is being done in collaboration with the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

So rampant is the abuse that some workers claimed that all women in their department had slept with their superiors to safeguard their employment.

“All of the women in my department have slept with the supervisor. For the women, this is about survival and nothing else,” WRC quoted one female worker as saying. “If you say no, you won’t get the job, or your contract will not be renewed.”

WRC began to investigate the factories after several sources informed the body that the workers who sew, wash, sand, and add rivets to the blue jeans and other clothing were being abused by factory staff.

In dozens of interviews, the women described to the rights group the epidemic of abuse and harassment, from inappropriate touching, sexual demands, offensive sexual comments, to taking them home for sex.

The workers said that if they objected to the harassment, they faced discrimination and further abuse. According to the rights group, the factory managers also fought against unions.

Female workers also told investigators that in addition to the abuse from supervisors, their male colleagues were molesting them as well.

“Male workers like touching females in a way that is not appropriate,” one woman said.

The report has prompted local civic society, factory workers and the WRC to sign an agreement to combat gender-based violence (GBV) and other forms of harassment at the factories.

The five groups that have pledged to work together to combat the abuse of workers are the United Textile Employees (UNITE), the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union (NACTWU), Independent Union of Lesotho (IDUL), the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho (FIDA) and Women and Law in Southern African Research and Education Trust-Lesotho (WILSA).

WILSA National Director Advocate Libakiso Matlho this week said they would identify violations of a jointly developed code of conduct and enforce remedies in accordance with the country’s Lesotho law.

“The programmes will also involve extensive worker to worker and management training, education and related activities,” Adv Matlho said.

“The Solidarity Centre, the WRC and Workers United will provide technical administrative assistance and support for the programme.”

The textile companies said they wanted all workers, particularly women, to feel “safe, valued and empowered”.

Nien Hsing Textile will also allow independently-appointed civil society members access to its factories to interview workers and ensure managers do not retaliate against workers bringing complaints.

The companies are also funding the two-year programme in collaboration with USAID to establish an independent investigative group where garment workers can express their concerns.

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