Lesotho women making jeans for Levis and Wrangler forced to have sex with bosses to keep jobs

Seamstresses
Seamstresses in a factory building in Lesotho

Managers of Levi’s, Wrangler, and The Children’s Place factories in Lesotho have been compelled to take a series of actions to address allegations of sexual abuse against female workers in the factories.

A labour rights group, Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), recently said it had uncovered that women producing jeans for American brands, including Levi Strauss, Wrangler and Lee, have been forced to have sex with their managers to keep their jobs or gain promotion.

The women also had to deal with other forms of sexual harassment and gender-based violence on a regular basis across the three factories making jeans for the U.S. 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,” one female worker was quoted by WRC. “If you say no, you won’t get the job, or your contract will not be renewed.”

In Lesotho, garment manufacturing has basically been centred on denim for export, employing huge numbers of people in the formal sector for almost 30 years now, a DW report said.

WRC said it began to investigate the factories about two years ago after it was told that the “workers who sew, wash, sand, and add rivets to the blue jeans and other clothing were being abused by factory staff.”

The rights group interviewed about 140 women who described the extent of abuse and harassment, adding that they were not allowed to unionise and this prevented them from collectively voicing out their concerns.

One worker managed to make a complaint to personnel about inappropriate touching from her supervisor, but no action was taken.

“They said they would fix it. No action was taken. Then I just let it go because they didn’t do anything about it,” she said.

WRC found that some of the allegations included managers from overseas, with one worker claiming that “foreign national managers slap women’s buttocks and touch their breasts”, adding: “One time, we caught [an expatriate] manager having sex with a female … worker in the factory. The women in these relationships get promoted easily and get a lot of bonuses.”

Supervisors who were found to have engaged in such forms of misconduct were usually transferred between departments instead of being disciplined, WRC found.

“We are demanded to lie on behalf of the company,” one worker was quoted.

“The people that buy the product of the company were on site, and we were threatened that if [anyone told] the truth of what really happens, it might jeopardise their jobs.”

The U.S.-based rights group said when it presented its findings to Nien Hsing, the company claimed that for two years now it had not received any report of sexual harassment or abuse and that no manager or supervisor had been disciplined over such accusations since 2005.

Levi Strauss & Co’s vice president of sustainability Michael Kobori told the Guardian that immediately his outfit received WRC’s findings: “We required Nien Hsing to immediately take a series of actions to address the allegations, including making changes in staffing and management at the facilities named in the report”.

Vice president Scott Deitz of Kontoor Brands, which owns Wrangler and Lee, also told the Guardianthat the company was “deeply, deeply concerned” by the allegations.

Levi Strauss & Co, Kontoor Brands, which owns Wrangler and Lee jeans, and The Children’s Place, have since signed agreements to end sexual harassment in five factories in Lesotho.

The clothing brands agreed to introduce supervision and enforcement for more than 10,000 workers in those factories, WRC said.

The agreements also include the creation of an independent oversight body which will have the power to investigate claims of sexual harassment and expose abusive managers. The body will also have the power to compel the factories to discipline offenders, including sacking when necessary.

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.

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