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Lesotho Plan Has All Elements to End Gender-Based Violence at Work

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A new worker-centered, precedent-setting program will comprehensively address the rampant gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) denying thousands of women garment workers a safe and dignified workplace in Lesotho.

The program, established by two negotiated and enforceable agreements, will cover 10,000 Lesotho garment workers in five factories that produce jeans and knitwear for the global market. Lesotho-based unions and women’s rights groups, major fashion brands and international worker rights organizations, including the Solidarity Center, negotiated with the factory owner, Nien Hsing Textiles, to mandate education and awareness training for all employees and managers, an independent reporting and monitoring system, and remedies for abusive behavior.

The parties came to the table after the U.S.-based Worker Rights Consortium documented how the mostly female workforce at three Nien Hsing textile factories regularly was coerced into sexual activity with supervisors as a condition of gaining or retaining employment or promotions, and were persistently sexually harassed, verbally and physically.

The Lesothoan unions and women’s rights groups, all with proven histories of fighting to advance the rights of workers and women throughout the country, are: the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho (FIDA), the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL), the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union, Lesotho (NACTWU), the United Textile Employees (UNITE) and Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust (WLSA)-Lesotho. They will administer the agreement and will serve on the oversight committee.

The Solidarity Center, WRC and Workers United joined these groups to negotiate the two agreements with Levi Strauss, The Children’s Place, Kontoor Brands and Nien Hsing Textiles.

“This is the first initiative in Lesotho that brings together workers, unions, women’s organizations and employers to work towards one common goal of improving the socioeconomic rights of women in the workplace,” said Thusoana Ntlama, FIDA programs coordinator, and Libakiso Matlho, WLSA national director.

Agreements Follow Report Documenting Abuse at Lesotho Factories

Nearly two-thirds of the garment workers WRC interviewed reported “having experienced sexual harassment or abuse” or having knowledge of harassment or abuse suffered by co-workers, according to the report. Women workers from all three factories identified GBVH as a central concern for themselves and other female employees.

“Many supervisors demand sexual favors and bribes from prospective employees,” one worker told WRC investigators. “They promise jobs to the workers who are still on probationary contracts.[…]All of the women in my department have slept with the supervisor. For the women, this is about survival and nothing else.[…]If you say no, you won’t get the job, or your contract will not be renewed.”

All the Elements to Prevent, Eliminate GBVH at Work

While sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence may happen at any workplace, GBVH is rampant in the global garment and textile industryGlobally, some 85% of garment workers are women. They are especially vulnerable to abuse and violence at work because of imbalanced power structures, high poverty and unemployment.

The Lesotho plan “has all the elements needed to prevent and eliminate gender-based violence at work,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “First, there’s real accountability. It is binding and enforceable on all parties. And the global brands and the employer have guaranteed their commitment to enforcing and upholding the code of conduct by signing fully executed, binding and enforceable contracts.”

The agreements:

  • Establish an independent organization to investigate issues, fully empowered to determine remedies;
  • Create a clear code of conduct on unacceptable behaviors and a system for reporting abuse—with garment workers as full participants in creating, implementing and monitoring it; and
  • Establish an education and awareness program that goes beyond the typical harassment and gender violence training. It will be comprehensive and get at the root causes of gender discrimination and violence against women.

Importantly, says Bader-Blau, “the program is sustainable because it’s worker designed, with unions working together with women’s rights groups to deliver it.”

And because the freedom to form unions and collectively bargain has proven essential to addressing gender-based violence and harassment at work and in creating the space for workers to shape a future of work that is fair and democratic, it’s especially key that these agreements also protect workers’ rights to freely form unions, says Bader-Blau.

Nien Hsing, which manufactures apparel for global brands in several countries, signed one agreement with trade unions and women’s rights organizations in Lesotho to establish the GBVH program, and has committed to take recommended action when violations of the program’s code of conduct have been established.

The global brands entered into a parallel agreement in which, should Nien Hsing commit a material breach of its agreement with the unions and NGOs, it will take action, including a potential reduction in orders.

In the past, as one worker told WRC, “The [supervisors accused of harassment] are usually rotated to other departments,” arrangements the plan seeks to eradicate.

Putting the Plan into Action

Lesotho-based women’s rights organizations, unions, the Solidarity Center and WRC will jointly design the education and awareness program and curriculum, with input from the newly created independent investigative organization.

They also will carry out the two-day training in which all workers and managers will take part. Workers will be paid regular wages during the training.

And importantly, says Bader-Blau, “Empowered workers with a negotiated stake in the agreements can identify and report violence and harassment. And because they have established the terms with the employer as equals, they can be sure that retaliation for reporting abuse and the impunity of abusers will end. Unlike corporate social responsibility programs, the Lesotho program is a contractual agreement with the employer, the brands and the unions, which means everyone is accountable to the code of conduct–with workers able to enforce it as an equal party.”

The program is partially modeled after the Fair Food Program, a set of binding agreements between leading food brands, like McDonald’s and Whole Foods, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Using the type of independent complaint mechanism that will be established by the Lesotho agreements, the Fair Food Program largely has eliminated what had been rampant sexual harassment and coercion in the tomato fields of Florida.

The agreements also build on the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, in which unions were key participants, and recognizes the fundamental role of collective bargaining in negotiating an agreement that is binding on employers and international brands and in bringing accountability to the global supply chain by ensuring the agreement is implemented and enforced.

Funding for the two-year program will come primarily from the three brands, in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the program will kick off in fall 2019.

This post originally appeared at the Solidarity Center.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on August 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union (the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism (covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia) she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.


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International Labor Organization Fights Gender-Based Workplace Violence and Harassment

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Image result for cassandra waters afl cioEight years ago, women union leaders and activists began campaigning for the International Labor Organization to tackle gender-based violence and harassment at work. Last week, at the ILO’s 100thanniversary, workers, governments and employers votedoverwhelmingly to approve a binding Convention on Violence and Harassment in the World of Work.

This victory is a testament to the power of trade unionists organizing around the globe. It’s also a reflection of the profound need for tools to address the harassment and violence too many workers, particularly women workers, face as a daily reality.

The ILO is a tripartite institution, meaning workers have a seat at the negotiating table. Led by our spokesperson Marie Clarke Walker from the Canadian Labour Congress, worker representatives from around the world spent the past two years negotiating strong, inclusive language that ensures all workers have meaningful protection from violence and harassment, particularly gender-based violence and harassment.

You can check out the full convention here, and a supplemental recommendation that further clarifies the obligations spelled out in the convention here. Some highlights include:

  • Establishing that everyone has a right to a world of work free from violence and harassment, and every country that ratifies the convention will “promote and realize” that right.

  • Protecting all workers, regardless of their contractual status, in both the formal and informal economy, as well as interns, apprentices, jobseekers, job applicants, volunteers, terminated workers and employers as individuals.

  • Ensuring protections not just in the physical worksite but in the broader world of work?—such as work-related trips and social events, places where workers are paid, rest or use sanitary and washing facilities, employer-provided accommodations and during the commute.

  • Addressing violence and harassment committed by or against third parties.

  • Requiring each national government that ratifies the convention to:

    • Adopt an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach for the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work, which should be developed in consultation with workers and their unions.

    • Enact both preventative measures and access to remedy, including gender-responsive, safe and effective complaint and dispute resolution mechanisms, support, services and remedies.

    • Identify sectors, occupations and work arrangements that leave workers more vulnerable to violence and harassment.

    • Promote collective bargaining as an important tool to address violence and harassment.

    • Provide specific protections for women and other vulnerable groups.

    • Require employers to take steps to prevent violence and harassment, including developing a workplace policy, providing support and training and identifying and addressing workplace hazards in consultations with workers and unions.

The United States worker delegation included leaders from UNITE HERE Local 1 Chicago’s “Hands Off, Pants On” campaign. The Hands Off, Pants On campaign demonstrates the importance of many of the convention’s provisions. Hotel housekeepers primarily face violence and harassment from third parties. A survey found more than half of housekeepers in Chicago had a guest expose themselves, with many recounting harrowing stories of jumping over furniture or locking themselves in bathrooms to escape unwanted sexual advances. Local 1 successfully negotiated protections, including panic buttons, into collective agreements for unionized housekeepers and then campaigned for a citywide ordinance to provide the same protections for all housekeepers in Chicago. This is an excellent example of how unions can use their power to win meaningful protections for workers.

To read more about what unions can do to prevent sexual harassment specifically, check out our toolkit; and for excellent examples of how unions tackle violence and harassment around the world check out this report.

Winning the convention is an important victory, but in many ways it is just the beginning. Now, workers will turn to ensuring governments widely ratify and implement these important protections to end violence and harassment in the world of work.

This article was originally published at Aflcio on June 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Cassandra Waters is the global worker rights specialist at the AFL-CIO.


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Ending Gender-Based Violence and Harassment in the World of Work

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No one should have to risk their safety or dignity to put food on the table. Yet every day, workers around the world are subjected to sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence. On Monday, May 28, workers, employers and governments will come together at the International Labor Organization to discuss a new global standard on violence and harassment in the world of work. This is the culmination of more than a decade of advocacy by the global labor movement. It’s an exciting opportunity to create a binding international agreement to end gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace.

The AFL-CIO, together with partners from around the world, will be on the ground pushing for a binding convention that empowers workers to take collective action to build safe, respectful workplaces. You can follow the action on our Facebook and Twitter accounts, and check out our partners at the Solidarity Center (@SolidarityCntr) and the International Trade Union Confederation (@ITUC).

Why use the term gender-based violence and harassment?

In the United States, the law protects against sex-based discrimination, including sexual harassment, and public conversations generally use these terms as well. Often, sex and gender are used interchangeably. However, there is an important distinction between the two: a person’s sex is tied to their inherent biological characteristics. Gender, on the other hand, is a social construct built around norms, expectations and stereotypes about what it means to be a man or a woman.

In the U.S., and indeed throughout much of the world, there is an entrenched, gendered power hierarchy that values men and a rigid definition of masculinity. The term gender-based violence and harassment reflects this inherent power imbalance. It recognizes the link between the gendered violence that occurs in society at large and the devaluation of women in the workplace. Both are tied to the way people are socialized, and particularly how men are socialized to feel entitled to women’s bodies and to expect deference and compliance. Every social actor has a role to play in breaking down these harmful stereotypes and creating equitable, respectful communities—and when it comes to addressing how this issue plays out in the workplace, unions have an unique and powerful role to play.

How do unions help stop gender-based violence and harassment?

Unions have a critical role to play in ending gender-based violence and harassment. At base, gender-based violence in the world of work—including unwanted touching, sexual comments, requests for sexual favors and even sexual assault—is not about sex, but about power. Unions are dedicated to shifting power relationships and creating more equitable and fair workplaces. Workers, particularly those who have been subjected to mistreatment, must be empowered to take collective action to enact solutions and demand justice.

Economic insecurity, particularly precarious and low-wage employment, makes workers more vulnerable to harassment. Women comprise the majority of part-time and temporary workers in the United States and most of the world, as well as the majority of low-paid workers and those making minimum wage. Many of these workers live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford even a brief break in employment, making them less likely to report abuse. Precarious work arrangements, like subcontracting or other contingent arrangements, decrease oversight and accountability. Confronting violence and harassment at work requires addressing the underlying conditions that drive abuse—including worker organizing to win living wages, job security and protection from retaliation.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 25, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Cassandra Waters is the global worker rights specialist at the AFL-CIO.


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