An investigation into denim manufacturing centers in Africa has unveiled systemic sexual abuse by local and foreign managers. Female garment workers suffered abuse, harassment, and retaliation if they spoke up.
A labor rights group has uncovered widespread sexual abuse against female garment workers by managerial staff in Levi's, Wrangler, and The Children's Place factories in Lesotho.
The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) reported on the violations after discovering that factory managers coerced women to have sex with them, threatening that the workers would lose their jobs if they objected.
The women also experienced other forms of sexual harassment and gender-based violence on a regular basis.
The abuse took place across three factories making jeans for the US brands, owned by Taiwan-based international jeans manufacturer, Nien Hsing Textile.
"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."
Lesotho is a mountainous landlocked country encircled entirely by South Africa whose formal economy is significantly based on the garment industry
Local economy based on exporting jeans
The report detailed abuses at factories in Lesotho, a mountainous landlocked country entirely enclosed by South Africa. While most of the female garment workers there are Lesothan, some managers at the factories also come from abroad. The witnesses said both local and foreign managers committed sexual abuse.
The Global Fund for Women reports that 80% of garment makers around the globe are women.
In Lesotho, garment manufacturing, with a focus on denim for export, has been the largest formal sector employer in the last 30 years.
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.
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Bosses, co-workers both among abusers
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 union organizing.
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.
Manufacturers: We want women to feel 'empowered'
The world-famous clothing brands have responded to the revelations.
Levi Strauss & Co, Kondoor Brands, which owns Wrangler and Lee jeans, and The Children's Place, signed agreements to end sexual harassment in five factories in Lesotho.
The brands agreed to introduce supervision and enforcement for more than 10,000 workers in those factories.
Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co, said that after being notified of the WRC report, his company immediately informed Nien Hsing Textile "that this would not be tolerated" and that the company will "develop a corrective action plan."
The manufacturers released a joint statement saying they want all workers, particularly women, to feel "safe, valued and empowered."
Under a binding agreement signed by Nien Hsing Textile, five trade unions and two women's groups as well as an independent committee to deal with complaints will identify future violations and enforce remedies in accordance with Lesothan law.
Nien Hsing Textile will also provide independently-appointed civil society members access to its factories in order to interview workers and ensure managers don't retaliate against workers bringing complaints.
The companies are also funding a two-year program in collaboration with the US Agency for International Development to establish an independent investigative group where garment workers can express concerns.
Deal should act as a model for apparel industry
WRC's Senior Program Director, Rola Abimourched, said that the Lesotho agreements should serve as a model for the garment industry.
"Hopefully this is something others will see and build on, so we can collectively make an impact far beyond any single country," she said.
The companies also have manufacturing facilities in Mexico, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
mvb/kl (AP, Reuters)