Gender-Based Violence and Discrimination

Globally, a large majority of garment workers are women. Women workers face particular challenges in addition to those faced by all workers. In an effort to avoid the costs associated with providing legally required benefits, factory managers often fire workers who become pregnant, sometimes even forcing all women employees to take pregnancy tests before being hired. Even if pregnant women are allowed to keep working, they are often denied benefits required under national law, including maternity leave, child care, and time to breastfeed.

They also face sexual harassment and abuse from managers and may risk being fired if they respond negatively or report the harassment to superiors. In most factories, since most workers are women, and most managers are men, the verbal abuse that all workers face becomes gendered, with managers shouting insults of a sexual nature at workers.

Gender-based violence does not happen in a vacuum: the risk for gender-based violence is increased in contexts where workers cannot exercise their right to bargain collectively and organize.

The WRC combats gender discrimination and harassment by responding to and documenting violations of women’s rights and pressing brands and factory owners to ensure that their suppliers stop any practices of gender-based discrimination or sexual harassment and abuse.

Binding Agreements to Combat Gender-Based Violence and Harassment

Nien Hsing (Lesotho)

On August 15, 2019, a set of landmark agreements were signed among leading apparel brands, the coalition of labor unions and women’s rights advocates, and Nien Hsing, a major producer of denim jeans globally, to combat gender-based violence and harassment in Lesotho. 

The agreements established Workers’ Rights Watch, an independent investigative organization, which has the responsibility to investigate allegations of gender-based violence and harassment at the factories owned by Nien Hsing in Lesotho and direct specific remedies up to and including termination from employment for violations of the code of conduct. The agreements also established a toll-free information line—run by one of the women’s rights organizations so that workers can learn more about the program and safely report incidents of gender-based violence and harassment without fear of retaliation—and an extensive education and awareness program, which includes a two-day workshop on gender-based violence and harassment, the program code of conduct, and how to report gender-based violence and harassment for all Nien Hsing employees. Recognizing the crucial role of workers’ ability to act collectively to protect their rights in changing gender-based power inequality, the agreement also protects associational rights by prohibiting any form of anti-union retaliation or interference with workers’ exercise of their right to organize.  

As outlined in a public report, released in 2023, the agreements have enabled workers to achieve fundamental change at Nien Hsing. Beyond Lesotho, these agreements set a vital precedent in the fight against gender-based violence and harassment at work.

Beyond Lesotho, these agreements set a vital precedent in the fight against gender-based violence and harassment at work.

Richard Chen, former Global Chairman of Nien Hsing, signing a memorandum of understanding between the Lesotho groups and Nien Hsing. Behind him are the Lesotho leaders: Thusoana Ntlama (FIDA),  Libakiso Matlho (WLSA), May Rathakane (IDUL), Sam Mokhele (NACTWU), and Daniel Maraisane (UNITE).

Natchi Apparel (India)

In January 2021, a young woman worker employed at Natchi Apparel factory in India was murdered by a male company supervisor. Natchi, whose recent customers included H&M, Authentic Brands, Walmart, and Marks & Spencer, is located in Tamil Nadu, a state in which gender-based violence and harassment has long been recognized to be pervasive. Following the murder, worker representatives and international advocacy groups launched a worldwide effort to expose the realities at Natchi and demand change. This work was driven by Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU), the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), of which TTCU is a member, and Global Labor Justice - International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF). At the joint request of these organizations and brand stakeholders, the WRC investigated gender-based violence and harassment at the factory. Our investigation found an atmosphere of pervasive gender-based violence and harassment at the factory, including two other likely cases where recent violent deaths of women workers appeared linked to their employment at the factory.

After completing our investigation, the WRC provided a draft report to the stakeholders and agreed to hold off on publication to allow for continued negotiations among the parties toward binding agreements to protect workers at Natchi. In April 2022, TTCU, AFWA, GLJ-ILRF; the factory’s owner; and H&M announced the agreements, which established a comprehensive program for worker training and empowerment and for effective and impartial investigation and remediation of workers’ complaints concerning gender-based violence and harassment. Worker representatives will play a central role in the program. The factory owner’s commitments are enforced by H&M as a mandatory condition of future business, which, along with funding for the program, are binding obligations for the brand through its own arbitrable multiyear agreement.

The WRC’s investigation of these abuses, and the subsequent agreements to combat and eliminate them, were the subject of this recent in-depth article in the Guardian.

In a global garment industry in which gender-based violence and harassment is widespread, these agreements represent binding commitments, by factory owners and by brand representatives with worker representatives, that will protect the workforce from abuse. Given the prevalence of gender-based violence and harassment in the apparel supply chain, the most meaningful indicator of corporate responsibility is not whether this problem exists at a company but whether the company and its buyers are pursuing bold and innovative means to address it. To their credit, H&M and Natchi’s owners, in partnership with worker representatives, are doing so.