…Pledges to implement improved gender protective rights program
…Unions say sexual harassment is popular in all factories
Nien Hsing International group says they ‘regret’ sexual harassment reported in a report by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC).
The report; WORKER RIGHTS CONSORTIUM ASSESSMENT re: GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE AND HARASSMENT AT NIEN HSING TEXTILE CO., LTD (LESOTHO) FINDINGS, RECOMMENDATIONS, AND STATUS which was released on August 15 revealed findings concerning gender-based violence and harassment and violations of associational rights at three garment factories owned by a Taiwan owned Nien Hsing International group.
The factories; C&Y Garments (“C&Y”), Nien Hsing International, and Global Garments manufactures and supply denim jeans to Levi Strauss & Co, The Children’s Place, and Kontoor Brands.
The three garment factories are owned by the Taiwan-based global jeans manufacturer, Nien Hsing Textile Co., Ltd. (“Nien Hsing”) and collectively employ roughly 10,000 workers.
Nien Hsing also operates a textile mill in Lesotho, Formosa Textile Company, and has recently opened a fifth facility, called Glory International.
The report released on August 15 identified sexual harassment and coercion of women workers by male managers, supervisors, and co-workers, across the three factories.
The WRC found, based on our analysis of the evidence that these abuses were extensive, affecting many of the women working at the factories.
“The gender-based violence and harassment identified at these facilities violated workers’ rights under Lesotho’s labour laws, international standards, and the codes of conduct of the brands whose products these employees produce.
“Specifically, the WRC found that, managers and supervisors coerced many workers into sexual relationships. They did so by conditioning the maintenance of employment contracts and/or provision of more favourable working conditions on a female worker’s willingness to engage in such a relationship,” the report noted.
It added that women workers faced sexual harassment from both managers and co-workers, and management often failed to take disciplinary action against offenders.
“This tolerance of harassment by Nien Hsing created a culture of acceptance of GBVH in the factories and a fear of reporting among women workers. The vulnerability of women workers at these factories to GBVH was exacerbated by Nien Hsing’s suppression of workers’ associational rights, which left employees unable to act collectively to raise concerns about, and demand an end to these abuses,” the report related.
The WRC found that Nien Hsing, in violation of Lesotho’s laws, international standards, and buyer codes, denied employees the right to be represented by their chosen union; attempted to interfere with internal union matters; unilaterally terminated a memorandum of understanding with one of the unions representing workers at the factories, and engaged in acts of discrimination and retaliation against employees for exercising their associational rights.
When speaking with Newsday recently, Ricky Chang, Nein Hsing International Group Lesotho Administrative Manager highlighted that the company was looking for a way forward.
“We only learned of the incidents that were happening in our factories through the report, but we feel it is more important to focus on a way forward.”
“We have signed an agreement to try and implement a program which will help improve issues of gender based violence in the workplace,” he said.
He however refused to confirm of the findings of the report, however expressed regret.
“I will neither confirm nor deny of whether these things really happened. They were investigated and a report was issued. I will however stress that it is important to foster forward and as a company we regret that those incidents were happening in our companies. We vow to improve with this new given opportunity to make things better,” Chang said.
“We are going to implement the program to its succession,” he added.
When interviewed separately, Sam Mokhele, of National Clothing Allied Union (Nactwu) revealed that sexual harassment is rife in all sectors of employment with factories recording the most highest.
“This is where women are employed in high numbers and occupying lower positions.
“They are hired on temporary basis, so they are enticed to exchange job security with sexual benefits. It does not happen with Nien Hsing only, but with all sectors, and perpetrators most times are Basotho males and at times foreigners occupying high positions,” he explained.
He indicated that it has proven difficult to deal with by local unions, citing victims fear losing their jobs.
“The fact that most women employed in the factories are working on temporary basis makes it difficult for them to report harassment in fear of losing their jobs, while in other incidents, such happen outside the workplace so employers refuse to get involve citing incidents happened outside the workplace, not realising that it emanates from work,” Mokhele explained.
He revealed that the WRC report focused on Nein Hsing because it is a United States based organisation.
“It was very specific to a company it benefits directly from hence recommendations were initiated by United States organisations, but that doesn’t mean it is exclusive to that factory alone,” he said.
The report in their findings capturing urged Nien Hsing clients to not terminate its business citing economic state of the workers.
“It is important to emphasise that the WRC, upon documenting these violations, did not ask Nien Hsing’s brand customers to stop doing business with the company. We asked the brands to maintain the business relationship and use their leverage to convince Nien Hsing to change its practices—consistent with the best interests of the workers. While it is necessary, ultimately, for brands to condition orders for their suppliers on respect for human rights, termination of the business relationship should be a last resort, given the economic consequences for workers.
“The brands have responded appropriately, engaging with Nien Hsing’s CEO and requiring reforms. As a result, shortly after the findings were surfaced, and in accordance with remedies prescribed by the WRC to reduce the vulnerability of women workers and increase their capacity to defend their rights, Nien Hsing signed a Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with three unions representing workers at the factories and significantly limited the use of short-term contracts, which had made workers especially vulnerable to abuse. Most importantly, as discussed in detail below, Nien Hsing has committed to accept an independent oversight mechanism with the power to protect women workers from harassment and abuse, and the brands have agreed to condition business with Nien Hsing on the company keeping its commitment,” the report said.
Although the report cited women as victims of harassment, Mokhele of NACTWU, who was also part of the signatories of the MOU indicated that all factory employees irrespective of their sex were victims.
“It may have emerged that women are being sexually harassed, but the truth is even men who work at the factories and are desperate to keeping their jobs are also victims.
“We have cases of men who have had to exchange sex to keep their jobs, but the number difference has forced the findings to look more on women,” he said.
He indicated the launch of a comprehensive pilot program intended to prevent gender based violence and harassment in the garment factories is being piloted with the three Nien Hsing factories.
“Since this is not a Nien Hsing problem, we are planning to learn from the pilot of the agreement, then look into expanding it to other factories and workplaces,” Mokhele said.
Mokhele was part of the local unions that signed and launched the comprehensive pilot program intended to prevent gender-based violence and harassment in garment factories in Lesotho.
The Lesotho National Development Corporation Public Relations Manager, Tiisetso Moremoholo told this paper that the organisation had not received any formal notification of the harassment incidents happening in the factories.
“The LNDC has not received any formal notification from any party from within the factories regarding sexual harassment that happens in the factories.
“We recently became aware of the issue when the news story was broken with an article publishing the report and the LNDC has begun efforts to get in touch with the relevant parties mentioned in the report to verify its contents.
She told this paper that of the 41828 factory workers, 32 799 are women.
She indicated that when issues of harassment are raised, the LNDC is not an authority body to go to.
“…meaning we do not have the powers to reprimand such actions, but we can play a role of facilitator in resolving the matter, particularly when such incidents are reported,” Moremoholo said.
She pointed out that the report has potential to negatively impact potential investment in Lesotho.
“This issue is likely to impact negatively on LNDC and Lesotho’s investment promotion efforts, and on the ability of the country to sell goods across borders, hence LNDC efforts to get in touch with the relevant parties for more information and to collectively agree on a way forward to prevent recurrence of these incidents.
“The LNDC will continue to pursue its mandate to initiate, promote and facilitate the development of the industry in manufacturing and processing through its investment promotion activities. However, it also remains committed to demonstrating itself as a socially responsible entity,” she said.