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Behavior Change
Clothing Giants Join Forces to Fight Gender-Based Violence in African Factories

Levi Strauss, The Children’s Place and Kontoor Brands have launched a pilot program aimed at ending gender-based harassment at five factories owned and operated by supplier Nien Hsing Textile Co. Ltd., in Lesotho.

The group took action after a two-year investigation by the nonprofit Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) revealed that managers and supervisors regularly coerced female workers into sexual situations, through promises of promotions or full-time contracts. The investigation also found that management failed to punish the offenders; and that workers’ right to unionize was suppressed, preventing them from collectively sounding the alarm. The abuses violated not only workers’ rights under Lesotho labor laws, but also international standards and the codes of conduct of the brands sourcing from the factories.

The resulting accord — backed by civil and women’s rights groups; five Lesotho-based labor unions; and US-based organizations WRC, Solidarity Center and Workers United — will offer protection to more than 10,000 garment workers in Lesotho, as well as supporting economic development and promoting Lesotho as an apparel-exporting country.

As the Guardian reports, rather than insist the brands terminate their contracts with Nien Hsing, WRC asked them to leverage their buying power to influence the supplier to change its practices, said WRC senior program director Rola Abimourched.

“Internal ‘complaints procedures’ ask workers to trust the very management responsible for the abuses and ignore the power imbalance between workers and their supervisors, who may be perpetrators of abuse,” Abimourched explained to the Guardian. “Despite the existence of social auditing programs that aim to address gender-based violence, workers at the bottom of supply chains remain vulnerable to abuse. These binding agreements present a fundamentally different approach, one with teeth.”

The agreements include creation of an independent oversight body with the power to investigate claims of sexual harassment and expose abusive managers, and to compel the factories to discipline offenders. The program will also involve extensive worker-to-worker and management training, education, and related activities.

“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, Nien Hsing’s chairman, said in an emailed statement.

The pilot program — which will be funded mostly by the three clothing companies, with additional backing from the US Agency for International Development — will run for two years.

Taiwan-based Nien Hsing, which also operates in Mexico and Vietnam, has agreed to provide access to its factories for reporting purposes and direct its managers not to retaliate against workers who file complaints. Should the supplier breach the worker-protection agreement, LS&Co, The Children’s Place and Kontoor Brands will withdraw production orders until it is compliant.

Kontoor Brands VP Scott Deitz told the Guardian that the company was “deeply, deeply concerned” by the allegations, adding: “This was not the way we wanted to learn about these problems. We wanted to learn about them through the audits we conducted.”

Levi Strauss, which has been sourcing from the Lesotho factories for the past 10 years, explained in a statement: “[We have] a longstanding commitment to creating safe, productive workplaces for workers across our supply chain. As the first multinational apparel company to establish a comprehensive workplace code of conduct for our manufacturing suppliers, it is fundamental to our work.

“Whenever we learn of issues that negatively impact workers, it is incumbent on us to respond quickly and thoughtfully. After reviewing a summary of the report, we 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. … All recommendations have either been completed or are in process, and we continue to monitor Nien Hsing’s progress.

“Addressing sexual harassment and abuse requires coordination and commitment; there is no ‘one size fits all’ remedy. Unlike many risks that we audit against, reports of sexual harassment and coercion are more difficult to illicit from workers due to their fear of retaliation and other factors. We are therefore currently engaging with experts in order to identify best practices for identifying gender-based violence and harassment and improving our monitoring processes.”

Levi Strauss goes on to outline further company efforts to address gender-based violence and harassment: To address the issue at a systemic level, the jeans giant has launched a cross-functional Gender Equity Taskforce made up of representatives from its Sourcing, Sustainability and Global Policy teams, and the Levi Strauss Foundation, which works with industry experts to ensure that issues tied to gender equity are addressed in all monitoring and audits. This complements the company’s Worker Wellbeing initiatives, which the company says have reached more than 200,000 workers in 17 countries; as well as the publication last year of an open-source Gender Equality Report that outlines good practices for enhancing gender equity in the apparel industry.

“This is a global issue — an industry-wide issue — and we have every intention of continuing to be leaders in efforts to insure a safe and productive working environment across our entire supply chain, in order to improve the working lives of people we know are so critical to our continued success as a company,” the company says.