Thursday, August 20, 2020

Lesotho - Sweatshops and sex abuse

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. The supervisors knew they held all the power. “Nobody ever stopped them. They did whatever they wanted to do.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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 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. As workers get more desperate to keep their jobs, they will be less able to speak out
In March, when the pandemic hit, brands immediately started refusing to pay for orders already in production in factories. The knock-on effect has been swift and brutal: more than 1 million workers have alReady 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. Now things are re-opening,  retailers are expecting to get significant discounts.
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.”
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.’” 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.”
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.”
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.”
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. "...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.”
“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.”

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