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Ground-breaking Agreement to Combat Sexual Harassment

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September 26, 2019

Dear Colleague,

I write to share news about a set of ground-breaking labor rights agreements that the WRC helped to forge. These binding agreements, which apply to the operations of one of the world’s largest manufacturers of jeans, are designed to address one of the toughest problems found in global apparel supply chains: workplace sexual harassment.

The agreements, involving Levi’s, The Children’s Place, and Kontoor Brands (Wrangler and Lee jeans), arose from a WRC investigation at factories in Lesotho operated by Nien Hsing Textile. The WRC’s inquiry exposed severe and extensive sexual harassment and coercion at these facilities, including women workers being compelled to have sex with their supervisors in order to keep their jobs. The factories employ more than 10,000 workers, making non-collegiate apparel.

Recognizing that abuses this grave and entrenched cannot be addressed through voluntary labor standards, the WRC recommended to worker representatives in Lesotho—and to Levi’s, The Children’s Place, and Kontoor—that they pursue a different approach. We urged them to forge binding agreements, obligating each of the brands to condition its business with Nien Hsing on the latter’s compliance with rigorous, enforceable standards to protect workers from sexual harassment.

A coalition of Lesotho women’s rights organizations and unions entered negotiations with each of these brands, with support from leading labor organizations in the US. The WRC advised all of the parties through nine months of discussions. Last month, these negotiations bore fruit in several binding agreements.

The parties to the resulting agreements are, on the Lesotho side, the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL), United Textile Employees (UNITE), the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union (NACTWU), the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho (FIDA) and Women and Law in Southern African Research and Education Trust – Lesotho (WLSA). The brands that signed these agreements are Levi’s, The Children’s Place, and Kontoor. The WRC is also a signatory, along with the two US organizations that advised the Lesotho groups, the Solidarity Center and Workers United. There is a separate, related agreement between the Lesotho organizations and the employer, Nien Hsing.

Like the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, these agreements build on the principle universities established when they first applied labor standards to their licensing agreements: that labor rights protections in outsourced supply chains should be contractually enforceable, not voluntary. The agreements also build on the extraordinary success of the Fair Food Program in combating sexual harassment in the US agricultural sector. The Fair Food Program, which applies to farm workers in Florida and other Atlantic states, is a set of agreements between major food retailers, like McDonald’s and Whole Foods, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The program has largely eliminated what had been a culture of rampant sexual harassment and coercion affecting tens of thousands of farm workers. The new agreements in Lesotho draw from this experience, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has provided valuable support for the Lesotho organizations.

Work to implement the agreements, including the creation of a new independent body to investigate complaints from workers and hold abusive managers accountable, is now beginning. The Solidarity Center, with financial support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), will lead implementation from the US side. The WRC and several other organizations will also support the effort. The most important work, of course, will be done by the women’s rights organizations and unions in Lesotho.

Although the factories covered by this program do not produce university logo apparel, the problem of sexual harassment affects workers broadly across the garment industry, including in factories producing for collegiate licensees. By bringing a new approach to combating this problem at garment factories, these new agreements, when implemented, will open the door to far broader change—with long-term benefits for the collegiate apparel sector.

Below are links to a fact sheet about the program, other relevant documents, and related media coverage. We hope you will find these useful. Please let us know if you have thoughts or questions.

We look forward to keeping you posted on implementation progress.

Best,

Rola Abimourched 
Senior Program Director


Links:
Fact Sheet: Agreements to Combat Gender-based Violence in Lesotho’s Garment Industry
WRC Assessment of Nien Hsing re Gender-based Violence and Harassment
Joint Press Release on the Agreements
Media coverage by: Associated Press, Reuters, The Guardian, Bloomberg News