Female garment workers in Lesotho factories are being forced into sex

A new report claims women in Lesotho are coerced into sexual relationships by supervisors, co-workers, and managers who threaten to terminate contracts if they do not comply

This week, the US-based organisation Workers Rights Consortium published a report outlining ‘gender-based violence and harassment’ allegedly taking place in three factories in Lesotho, Southern Africa. All three factories are owned by a Taiwanese company named Nien Hsing Textile Co., whose clientele include American denim brands Levi Strauss, Calvin Klein, and Wrangler.  

The investigation took place over two years and consisted of interviews with 140 workers. As detailed in the report, many of the women working in the factories claim to have been coerced by their male supervisors, bosses, and co-workers into sexual relationships to keep their employment contracts and ‘more favourable working conditions’. In the published assessment, one female employee states: “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.”

Another worker told the WRC: “We are demanded to lie on behalf of the company… The people that buy the product of the company were on the site, and we were threatened that if some tell the truth of what really happens on the site, it might jeopardize their jobs.” This was also the case when external auditors visited the factories. 

Since the tragedy of Rana Plaza in 2013, which took the lives of 1,138 people, there have been several investigations into the living and working conditions of female garment workers. Just last year, a report shed light on how workers are often paid less than a dollar per hour, while many continue to work long shifts in environments detrimental to their health. 

The vice president of sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co informed the Associated Press that Nien Hsing has been told the mistreatment of the workers “would not be tolerated”, and they are to “develop a corrective action plan”. Elsewhere, Levi Strauss & Co has also joined Kondoor Brands (which owns Lee Jeans and Wrangler) in signing agreements to end sexual assault and harassment in five factories in Lesotho. 

Nien Hsing has since signed an agreement which states that an independent committee, two women’s groups, and five trade unions are to be put in place to enforce Lesothan laws and help handle future allegations. “We strive to ensure a safe and secure workplace for all workers in our factories and are therefore fully committed to implementing this agreement immediately, comprehensively, and with measurable success,” the company’s chairman, Richard Chen, stated. 

The textile and apparel industry is growing exponentially in Lesotho, with the country producing 26m pairs of jeans annually and a workforce of around 38,000 people.