At one of the biggest garment factories in Maseru, the capital city of Lesotho, the managers never hired enough regular workers to complete the clothing orders that flooded in from Europe and the US. Instead, every morning, a few hours after the sewing machines had started whirring, a male supervisor would stroll out to the factory gates where dozens of women waited. As he approached, they would surge forward, pressing themselves close to the railings and calling out their names.
These women were known as the “dailies” – unemployed cutters and machinists who went from factory to factory looking for a few hours of casual work. Everyone knew what the women had to do to get picked from the crowd. Many would endure repeated harassment and sexual assault to secure a daily wage of just over £6 a day.
“A woman whose babies are going hungry will do anything to put food on the table,” said Thebelang Mohapi, who worked in the payroll department. She regarded the women outside the gate with pity and fear: she understood that the invisible line between her and the “dailies” could vanish at the smallest misstep. The supervisors knew they held all the power. “Nobody ever stopped them. They did whatever they wanted to do.”
Mohapi, at 23, knew that regular workers were also being forced to have sex with their managers to keep their jobs, but she thought that if she worked hard and kept her head down, she would go unnoticed. When she passed her probation period and her supervisor recommended her for a full-time job, she felt years of stress lift from her shoulders.
Then, a few weeks later, just before her shift was due to end, her supervisor came looking for her. He told her to follow him to his office and she watched mutely as he closed the blinds and asked her to shut the door.
“At first he tried to say that he’d fallen in love with me and wanted us to be in a relationship. When I said no, he said I had to show him some gratitude,” she said. He became angry and aggressive, shouting and advancing on her in the gloom. Mohapi fled from his office and, shaking, went straight to the head of human resources at the factory to complain that she was being harassed. By the end of the day she had been fired.
“Everything changed in an instant,” she said. She and her husband had just rented a small one-bedroom house, and she had dreams of saving up to go to nursing college. Her husband was struggling to support her and their baby daughter; he had worked in the garment factory, rubbing holes in the knees of new pairs of jeans to make them look distressed, but had to quit after he got sick from inhaling denim fibres. “I thought this job was the start of something good for us. I knew of the bad things happening at the factory but I was foolish enough to think it wouldn’t happen to me,” she said.
When I met Mohapi in Maseru late last year, she had not worked since the day she was fired, almost 12 months earlier. The factory’s HR manager had put a letter on her file saying she was insolent and insubordinate, and that her work was unsatisfactory. “That letter,” she said, “it has followed me from place to place. I feel angry every day that I was punished and this man is still there, taking home a salary. Nobody cares what is happening to us women there.”
Last year, a report by an NGO, the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), revealed a widespread incidence of rape, sexual assault and harassment at multiple garment factories in Maseru. More than 120 women from three different factories testified that they had been forced to have sex with male supervisors in order to keep their jobs. Some alleged that they had been raped on the factory premises. Some said they had contracted HIV from supervisors who withheld their salaries until they agreed to have unprotected sex. Those who complained were sacked.
These factories in Lesotho supply some of the most famous denim brands in the world. The Taiwanese company Nien Hsing, which owns the factories investigated by WRC, is a major supplier to Levi Strauss, Wrangler and US retailer The Children’s Place. The brands had all carried out social audits and factory inspections, which are supposed to detect human rights and labour violations, but none had picked up the degrading and abusive conditions the female workers endured.
The WRC report was the first to link major brands directly to sexual violence in Lesotho, but garment workers in India, Brazil, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Turkey, China, Bangladesh and Vietnam have also reported being assaulted, stalked, groped, harassed and raped in factories making clothing for international brands. An ActionAid report in 2019 estimated that 80% of all Bangladeshi garment workers had faced sexual violence in the workplace.
“Sexual harassment is the fashion industry’s dirty secret. Brands are rarely called to account for what is happening to women making their clothing,” said Aruna Kashyap, a campaigner and legal advocate for Human Rights Watch.
Levi’s was initially reluctant to take action. But faced with such clear evidence of a culture of rape and sexual harassment in their supply chain, they decided they couldn’t ignore it. They negotiated a legally binding agreement with Nien Hsing, the owners of five major factories, unions and women’s groups to put measures in place to protect workers, including stopping the use of “dailies” and creating an independent body to investigate allegations of harassment.
But these gains are now in jeopardy. “At the beginning of this year we genuinely felt optimistic that what happened in Lesotho would create real change for women across the global fashion industry,” said Scott Nova, the executive director of WRC. “But now the world feels like a very different place.”
Covid-19 has hit the global garment industry hard. As the virus kept consumers at home and shuttered high streets, fashion brands responded by using “force majeure” clauses in their contracts with suppliers to cancel an estimated £8bn of orders. Many refused to accept shipments of finished clothing they would no longer be able to sell.
The knock-on effect has been swift and brutal: more than 1 million workers have aleady lost their jobs in Bangladesh. Many are already facing destitution. As wages are slashed and factories close, there has been a wave of attacks on labour rights campaigners and vulnerable workers, including pregnant women in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar. Already, the sexual abuse of women garment workers who desperately need jobs is on the rise.
“What we are now facing is nothing short of a human rights catastrophe for millions of women,” said Nova. “When we released the Lesotho report, we really felt like we’d found the very worst of what could happen to women workers at the bottom of our supply chains. Now, as workers get more desperate to keep their jobs, they will be less able to speak out.”
Compared to the multi-billion pound garment powerhouses of Bangladesh and China, the small, landlocked country of Lesotho, an enclave within South Africa, is an industry minnow, exporting just 90m pieces of clothing a year, compared with the 10bn pieces of clothing exported by Bangladesh each year. Yet one thing that Lesotho specialises in is denim. More than 26m pairs of jeans are made here every year, many of them for Levi’s, and this has become the fuel that keeps the country’s faltering economy running.
“Without the garment industry, the economy would just break down,” said Sam Mokhele, from the National Clothing and Textile Workers Union (NACTWU) union in Lesotho. The export garment industry accounts for more than 20% of the country’s GDP. “The Taiwanese clothing companies are now our biggest employer. There are 46,000 people working in the factories, most of them women whose families wouldn’t be able to eat if they closed.”
Lesotho’s ready-to-wear apparel industry started in the 90s when Taiwanese and Chinese clothing companies were attracted by the country’s geographical proximity to the roads and ports of South Africa and favourable trading arrangements offered by the government. The Nien Hsing group is one of Levi’s major suppliers.
The vast majority – about 80% – of garment workers in Lesotho are female. Women are the main breadwinners for many families in Lesotho, often supporting extended families. Since the factories came to Maseru, the number of women employed in Lesotho has doubled. Yet the garment industry has not delivered the economic emancipation for women that it promised. Most of the women I interviewed in Lesotho last year were paid less per month than the cost of a single pair of Levi’s jeans – about £60. And yet, for many, it is either this or nothing.
“At the end of the day, garment workers across the world are stigmatised and marginalised because they are poor women,” said Bobbie Sta Maria, a senior researcher at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. “It is overwhelmingly women who do the badly paid, low-skilled manual labour, and almost universally men who are in positions of power over them. The brands benefit from this model and its lower production costs, because they know that women will accept poorly paid work to support their families.”
The fashion industry’s fast-moving production model exerts relentless pressure to produce more for less. The burden falls on suppliers in some of the world’s poorest countries, where there is high unemployment and little enforcement of labour and human rights standards. Now, as brands struggle to claw back lost profit from the coronavirus pandemic, that pressure is only likely to get worse.
“In March, when the pandemic hit, brands immediately started refusing to pay for orders already in production in factories. Now things are re-opening, we’re seeing retailers expecting to get significant discounts,” said Nova.
Mohapi said that even before the pandemic, factory supervisors were always stressed by the constant pressure to hit targets, and often took it out on the women. They would walk up and down the line screaming at them to work harder. It was a process of dehumanisation. “They would abuse us, calling us prostitutes and dogs,” she said. “If we had a big order, it got worse.”
Outside the factories, Lesotho has one of the highest rates of rape and sexual violence in the world, and most women do not trust the police. “Inside our factories women didn’t report, because the management didn’t care and the women saw what happened to people like me who did speak out,” said Mohapi. “The people from the WRC were the first to ever ask us what was really happening, and to listen to what we had to say.”
Sethelile Nthakana had just finished her master’s degree in South Africa in the spring of 2018 when she got a call from WRC about a research job. Nthakana’s original brief had nothing to do with sexual harassment. The Nien Hsing group had recently ejected labour unions from all their factories, and WRC was worried that there were pay and health and safety violations going on behind closed doors.
“We set up a whole load of anonymous off-site interviews, and spent hours asking all these questions about pay packets and fire exits, and then – almost as an afterthought – we asked the women what their main problem was at work, and they started talking about their supervisors,” Nthakana said. She realised pretty quickly that these were not isolated cases. “Every single person who walked through the door was saying the same thing.”
Nthakana and a male colleague started focusing almost exclusively on the issue of sexual violence in the factories supplying Levi’s. “Look, I am a Lesotho woman,” she said. “We’ve all been harassed and propositioned in the workplace – but what these women were telling me was another level.” Most of the women had never spoken about their ordeals. Some told Nthakana they had contracted HIV from their supervisors, and could not tell their husbands. “It was so hard to deal with that level of trauma and pain,” she said. “Our hearts were broken every single day.”
Kabelo Sello is one of the women who spoke to Nthakana in early 2019. Sello moved to Maseru in 2018, leaving three young children and an elderly mother waiting for her paycheck. After months of searching for work, she eventually got offered a short-term contract at a Nien Hsing factory, packing Levi’s jeans into boxes. “It was really hard – we had to pack minimum 90 boxes of jeans a day, so it was very stressful,” she told me when we met in downtown Maseru. As Sello’s contract neared its end, her supervisor started propositioning her in the factory and following her home from work at night.
Sello understood the transaction he was proposing. In exchange for sex, she would get a permanent job and better conditions at work. “All the time I was thinking about how I needed to support the three children and my mother,” she said quietly. “I did it and I got my job, but I feel very ashamed,” she said. “And he’s still harassing me – I’m still expected to do it whenever he wants.”
In Lesotho, I spoke to 10 women working at factories producing jeans for Levi’s and other western brands. One woman, Mamello Makhetha, broke down when she talked about being raped by her boss. She hid her face in her sleeve as she described the smell of his cheap aftershave as he lay on top of her, and how she felt her mind slowly unravelling in the weeks after. “He acted like nothing had happened,” she said. “I realised maybe he has done this to lots of other women. Maybe to him this was just lunchtime recreation, but for me it was like death.”
When Makhetha eventually complained, she was demoted and moved to a lower-paid job in another department. “I know what happened to me is wrong, but if I lose this job I won’t get another one, so in the end you just accept that this is the way that life is,” she said.
The culture that allows sexual harassment and violence against women is deeply troubling for some of the male workers. Joseph Tlali, a father of four with more than 20 years of experience on the factory floor, is a supervisor at one of the factories exposed by the WRC report. “The supervisors just did what they wanted,” he said. “Even the junior managers were abusing women during their lunchtime. The factory manager would actually be watching them having sex on CCTV, but would not do anything to stop it. It was more like watching porn, you know? I would go home and look at my daughters sleeping and think: ‘You will never work in one of these places.’”
The solution, Tlali said, had to start with fair pay. “The [women] need to be paid more, so that they feel they have a choice, and are not constantly just days away from destitution.”. He said the Taiwanese bosses didn’t care about how the supervisors were treating the women as long as they completed the orders, and the brands didn’t care as long as they got their clothes. “Nothing was done to keep the women safe,” he said. “They couldn’t tell their husbands because they thought they would be blamed. So really, they were completely on their own.”
Levi Strauss & Co is celebrated across the industry for its ethical procurement, and was one of the first fashion brands to demand that suppliers uphold human rights and labour standards. Yet its supply chains in Lesotho had still become infested with sexual violence. As one campaigner put it to me: “If it’s happening in Levi’s supply chain, then it’s happening everywhere.” While every retailer has its own approach to ethical procurement, most, including Levi’s, use factory inspections and social auditing to show they are taking active steps to police the implementation of their codes of conduct.
The fashion industry started relying on social audits after the damaging sweatshop exposés of the 90s, which revealed the exploitation of workers making goods for global brands such as Nike and Gap. But for years campaigners have been warning that codes of conduct and social audits not only don’t work, but can be misleading. By creating a veneer of corporate accountability, they allow brands to palm off responsibility for bad working conditions on to suppliers.
“These audits are not there to protect the worker – they are there to protect the reputation of the clothing companies,” said Aruna Kashyap of Human Rights Watch. Kashyap recalls disasters that led to garment workers losing their lives in unsafe buildings: in 2012, the Ali Enterprises factory fire in Pakistan killed 250 workers who were trapped behind barred windows. In 2013, in the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, a factory building collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring thousands more.
“In both cases these factories had been declared safe by corporate social audits shortly before disaster struck. If audits can’t pick up that a building is about to collapse then there is no way they could identify something as hidden and nuanced as gender-based violence,” Kashyap said. Regardless, when it comes to sexual harassment, fashion brands are not even asking the questions. “They simply don’t want to know.”
All of the factories named in the WRC report had been audited and inspected, and no problems had been found. The women I talked to in confidence, on condition of anonymity – who also complained of unsafe working conditions and problems with pay and targeting of union organisers – had all been on the factory floor when audits were being carried out. They all said they would never disclose any problems they were having to auditors, especially not sexual harassment.
“When the inspectors come, they only ever talk to us in groups, and usually in front of our managers,” said Kabelo Sello. “Even if they talk to us alone, the management is watching, so if there is a complaint afterwards they know who who has talked. They never ask us any questions – they only say, “Are you happy at work?”, and we all nod.”
I asked Levi’s why their social audits had failed to pick up any of the abuse that had been uncovered by the WRC researchers. Kim Almedia, director of Levi’s “worker wellbeing” programme, said: “Gender-based violence is a complicated issue and is very hard to detect in the workplace,” she said. “I think this is a very specific incident that happened at one supplier with very specific conditions.”
Levi’s has said it intends to create women-led teams to do the audits. However, Nthakana, who interviewed many of the garment workers, said that brands have to gain the trust of women who will be scared to speak out. “We’re a relatively small NGO, and we just hired a hotel room away from the factory floor and asked workers if they wanted to come and speak to us. You have to create the conditions in which women feel safe to talk.”
When WRC first put the women’s allegations to the management at Nien Hsing, they denied it all. “They said that no cases of sexual harassment or abuse had been reported for two years, and that no manager or supervisor had been disciplined for sexual harassment since 2005,” said Rola Abimourched, the lead campaigner on the Lesotho campaign. “Which was exactly the point the women had been making – there was no safe way for them to report.”
Levi’s worked with Nien Hsing, the local labour unions and women’s rights groups to improve conditions for women in the factories. “For us this was a huge moment, because before it would be unthinkable that international brands would sit at the same table as a local labour union,” said Sam Mokhele, from the NACTWU union in Lesotho.
Out of these negotiations came the Lesotho Agreement, hailed by campaigners as the first credible attempt to tackle gender-based violence in the garment industry. Nien Hsing has agreed, among other measures, to implement a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment, recognise the labour unions, hire more female supervisors and put all workers on official contracts. An independent body with full-time staff has been set up to investigate complaints of sexual harassment, which has the power to dismiss perpetrators. If Nien Hsing fails to honour any of these conditions, it will lose its contracts with Levi’s and the other brands.
“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,” said Richard Chen, the chair of Nien Hsing, at the launch of the agreement.
Levi Strauss & Co, The Children’s Place and Kontoor Brands (owners of Wrangler) jointly stated: “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 … We believe this multi-faceted program can create lasting change and better working environments at these factories, making a significant positive impact on the entire workforce.”
The unions told me before lockdown that things have already dramatically changed for the women at the factories that signed up to the agreement. “Before, it has always been the workers who are desperate. Now it is the factories who are desperate not to lose the brands,” said Mokhele. “The power dynamic has shifted dramatically back to the workers. The supervisors can no longer touch them.”
Mamello Makhetha and Kabelo Sello, two of the women who faced sexual assault at the hands of their male supervisors, agree that the factories feel safer. “Everyone is on proper contracts now,” said Sello. “And a lot of the harassment has stopped.”
What happened in Lesotho has, said Levi’s senior programme manager, Kim Almedia, been a “huge learning curve” for the brand. She said Levi’s is proud to have been part of the creation of the “groundbreaking” Lesotho Agreement. As a brand, Levi’s is, she said, dedicated to the wellbeing of the women working in its supply chain. “We recognise that 70-80% of our workers are women, and given the power imbalances that exist, this leads to issues,” she said. “The global awakening around #MeToo is an opportunity to seize this moment and use it as momentum to be a leader in this space. It has taken a while for the [garment] industry to wake up to the severity of the issue [of sexual violence], but now there is no time to waste in addressing it.”
The Lesotho Agreement had only just started being implemented when the pandemic hit. One of the factories named in the WRC report has closed, but the unions have managed to negotiate unprecedented exit packages for workers and the management has promised to rehire as soon as the orders resume.
“We’re standing on the brink of a potential catastrophe in worker’s rights, as brands and suppliers try and recoup the losses they’ve incurred throughout the pandemic,” said Abimourched. “When women in our global supply chains are already suffering increasing suppression and desperation, Lesotho offers a model of how to build back better.”
But the impact the agreement will have outside of the handful of Nien Hsing factories in Lesotho may be limited. To date, the agreement is the fashion industry’s one and only attempt to stop the sexual abuse of garment workers. Levi’s says it has no plans to roll out similar initiatives across the rest of its supply chain. Not one perpetrator has faced criminal charges for sexual assaults committed at the factories.
“What has happened because of the women at the Nien Hsing factories coming forward and speaking out is incredible, but it’s painful to know that just down the road women in other garment factories are facing the same harassment. With Covid, the situation now in Lesotho is just getting worse for women every day,” said Sethelile Nthakana. “There are more than 45,000 garment workers in Lesotho, and more than 40 million more across the world. Each act of sexual violence that they face is a crime and must be stopped.”
Just before lockdown, I spoke to Thebelang Mohapi by phone from Lesotho, and she told me how her life had changed since the WRC report came out. When she saw what the women at her factory had managed to achieve for themselves and thousands of others, she took her case to an employment tribunal, and got her job back. Now she is training to be a union representative at her factory.
“It is still hard,” she said, “but at least here in Lesotho everybody is listening to us now. I want to try and make sure that no other woman in the factories has to come to work and suffer like that again.”
The workers’ names in this piece have been changed.
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