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Levi Strauss & Co, The Children’s Place and Kontoor Brands are funding a programme that targets gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in four Lesotho jeans factories employing up to 10,000 workers.

The project, which is unique in that it is binding and worker-led, will empower Lesotho unions, human and women’s rights groups to effectively address GBVH. 

To combat widespread abuse, the programme is providing garment workers with GBVH awareness training, a confidential reporting system, and enforcement processes administered by an entity independent of employer influence.

It comes after Levi Strauss, The Children’s Place, and Kontoor Brands launched a comprehensive pilot programme to prevent GBVH in garment factories in Lesotho last summer after an investigation documented a “deeply concerning” pattern of abuse and harassment at a key supplier’s factories in the country.

The brands 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 (WRC), 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.

A survey of workers at three Nien Hsing factories in Lesotho by WRC found that nearly two-thirds of the women from three factories who were interviewed reported “having experienced sexual harassment or abuse” or having knowledge of harassment or abuse suffered by co-workers. Women workers from all three factories surveyed identified GBVH as a central concern for themselves and other female employees.

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The agreements build on the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, in which unions were key participants. The Accord recognises the fundamental role of collective bargaining in achieving an agreement that is binding and enforced, backed by international brands’ commitment to link their ongoing business with their supplier to their compliance.

Partners in the new programme, which launched earlier this month, include Lesotho-based unions and women’s rights groups that will play a key role in implementing the initiative to ensure that the binding agreements change the culture and practice at Nien Hsing’s factories and provide a remedy for victims of GBVH.

These include 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; international rights organisations Solidarity Center, Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) and Workers United.

Levi Strauss, The Children’s Place, Kontoor Brands, and Nien Hsing are signatories to and participants in the binding agreements and GBVH programme. Funding comes from Levi Strauss, The Children’s Place, and Kontoor Brands together with the Solidarity Center and WRC in collaboration with the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Under the programme, Workers’ Rights Watch, an independent Lesotho-based non-profit entity established by the agreements, is fully empowered to investigate complaints of GBVH and determine remedies to redress violations of the agreements’ GBVH code of conduct.

Meanwhile, a confidential, toll-free information line run by one of the women’s rights organisations is available six days a week for garment workers to discuss GBVH issues and remedies with trained counsellors, including determining their rights under the code of conduct and how to participate safely in a complaint and remedy process.

Education and awareness campaigns and programmes are also being provided to garment workers and their supervisors that “get at the root causes” of gender discrimination and violence against women, outline the GBVH code of conduct and remedies under the programme, and encourage reporting through the information line.

In addition, a new Solidarity Center GBVH training video in English and Sesotho will be widely disseminated to garment workers during training programmes and via social media.