Despite progress gender-based violence and harassment is still a reality for global garment workers

Our investigative work has shown over and over again that gender-based violence and harassment flourishes in environments where workers are not free to exercise their rights to freedom of association and where factory management actively suppresses these rights. Managers in the garment factories in Lesotho, for example, unilaterally and unlawfully terminated a memorandum of understanding with a workers’ union, attempted to interfere with internal union matters, and retaliated against employees for exercising their associational rights. Such actions only exacerbate workers’ fear of reporting abuse, and as a result gender-based violence at their places of work continues.

When workers do report gender-based violence and harassment to factory management, they often risk losing their jobs or further harassment. Workers in Lesotho were reluctant to report gender-based violence and harassment because it would put their livelihoods at risk, and because they believed that the perpetrators would escape punishment. And when one worker in El Salvador spoke up about experiencing discrimination based on his sexual orientation, the human resources manager told him to use the bathroom when it was empty in order to avoid harassment.

Accountability now

The snapshots above represent a wider trend of gender-based violence and harassment in garment factories around the world. They demonstrate that the main mechanisms for addressing abuse in use today, namely voluntary codes of conduct and internal grievance mechanisms, do not do enough to prevent gender-based violence and harassment at work or to provide remedy to those who have suffered abuse. They are inadequate because they do not hold brands and retailers to account for failing to meaningfully address abuse and harassment in their suppliers’ operations. In each case described above, brands sourcing from these factories failed to detect abuses through their voluntary codes of conduct and monitoring programmes.

In Lesotho, workers testified during off-site interviews that factory managers actively concealed violations from brand auditors and pressured employees not to speak truthfully about working conditions to brand representatives visiting the factory. Too often workers’ only option to report abuse is the factory’s internal grievance mechanism, which requires workers to trust the very management responsible for the abuses they face. Workers understandably have little trust in such mechanisms.

A fundamentally different approach was announced in August 2019 with the conclusion of a set of landmark agreements to combat gender-based violence and harassment in Lesotho’s garment sector. Leading apparel brands, a coalition of labour unions and women’s rights advocates, and the jeans producing factory discussed above are among its signatories. Recognising that the only way to root out gender-based violence in global supply chains is by centring the voices and participation of workers, and through binding and enforceable agreements with businesses who are responsible for work conditions, the 2019 Lesotho Agreements provide a radical departure from voluntary systems of corporate self-regulation.

Modelled after the Fair Food Program, which has been extraordinarily successful in eradicating sexual harassment and coercion in Florida’s agricultural fields, the Lesotho Agreements provide for an independent monitoring body and a safe reporting channel. The programme also provides an information and complaint line run by a women’s rights organisation, support and counselling to workers, and extensive worker-to-worker training, education, and related activities.

These binding and enforceable agreements present a radical departure from the status quo. Beyond Lesotho, these agreements set a vital precedent in the fight against gender-based violence in the workplace.

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