Garment workers in Lesotho make jeans for global export, including to the United States. Credit: Solidarity Center/Shawna Bader-Blau

Garment workers in Lesotho make jeans for global export, including to the United States. Credit: Solidarity Center/Shawna Bader-Blau

Levi Strauss & Co, The Children's Place, and Kontoor Brands are launching a comprehensive pilot programme to prevent gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in garment factories in Lesotho after an investigation documented a "deeply concerning" pattern of abuse and harassment at a key suppliers in the country.

The brands have signed a set of "unprecedented agreements" with five Lesotho-based trade unions and women's rights organisations, as well as US-based Worker Rights Consortium, Solidarity Center and Workers United, and Nien Hsing Textile to address GBVH at five factories owned and operated by the Taiwan-based apparel manufacturer in Lesotho.

The agreements, which cover some 10,000 workers, are the product of extensive negotiations after a Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) investigation documented a "deeply concerning pattern of abuse and harassment" in some of Nien Hsing Textile's garment factories in the country. 

The WRC, an independent labour rights monitoring organisation, says it identified "sexual harassment and coercion of women workers by male managers, supervisors, and co-workers", across three factories which supply denim garments to Levi Strauss, The Children's Place, and Kontoor Brands.

"The WRC found, based on our analysis of the evidence, that these abuses were extensive, affecting many of the women working at the factories," it states in its report. "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."

Report authors say the findings are based on an investigation of labour practices at the facilities, including offsite interviews with workers conducted during the autumn of 2017, the summer of 2018 and in early 2019.

Each brand agreement will operate in tandem with a separate agreement among Nien Hsing Textile and the trade unions and women's rights organisations to establish an independent investigative organisation 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 programme will also involve extensive worker-to-worker and management training, education, and related activities.

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 programme. Should there be any material breach by Nien Hsing Textile of its agreements with the trade unions and women's rights organisations, each brand has committed to reduce production orders until Nien Hsing returns to compliance.

Meanwhile, the Solidarity Center, the Worker Rights Consortium, and Workers United will provide technical and administrative assistance and support for the programme.

"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" - Richard Chen, chairman of Nien Hsing

"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, 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 organisations agreed to appoint representatives to serve on an Oversight Committee for the programme, 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 programme will come primarily from the three brands, in collaboration with the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

"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," said Levi Strauss & Co, The Children's Place and Kontoor Brands in a joint statement. "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 programme intended to prevent and combat gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace. We believe this multi-faceted programme can create lasting change and better working environments at these factories, making a significant positive impact on the entire workforce."

Meanwhile, Nien Hsing Textile has committed to work with the Solidarity Center and partner organisations to ensure that effective policies and systems to address GBVH are established at its facilities.

"These breakthrough agreements set an example for the rest of the apparel industry on how to address harassment and abuse in apparel supply chains," - Rola Abimourched, senior programme director at the WRC

"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 programme 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 organisations, 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."

In a separate blog post, Levi Stauss said gender-based violence and harassment is a "severe violation of our terms of engagement that all suppliers must sign on to."

The company noted that, after reviewing a summary of the report, it immediately engaged Nien Hsing's CEO to make it clear that the kinds of abuse alleged would not be tolerated and required action to be taken.

"This included that Nien Hsing resolve outstanding issues with local unions; review the use of short-term employment contracts; make management changes; hire third-party experts to assess and improve management systems; work with local experts to provide training to supervisors, management and worker representatives; re-activate a factory grievance hotline, managed by a third party; augment HR processes for recording and investigating complaints; and address reported safety issues," Levi Strauss said in its blog post. "All recommendations have either been completed or are in process, and we continue to monitor Nien Hsing's progress."