A Hotline Garment Workers Can Call When They Face Harassment on the Job
When women who sew clothes for famous brands are harassed, there is a new place for them to turn.
Ryan Lenora Brown
MASERU, LESOTHO — When Nthabiseng Moshoeshoe’s supervisor told her he loved her, they were alone in a room where they both worked at a blue jeans factory in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, she says.
It was early 2021. She was emptying the garbage. He said she was beautiful, that he wanted to be with her, says Moshoeshoe, who is going by a pseudonym to protect her safety and job security. “Let’s keep this professional,” she remembers telling him back. “I pushed him away gently.”
But he didn’t receive the news kindly, she says. From then on, she reports that he made repeated complaints about her performance. She grew worried she would lose her job, and with it the paycheck of $150 a month she relied on as her family’s breadwinner.
For the women who sew the Western world’s clothes in Lesotho — the tiny country buried inside South Africa — men like Moshoeshoe’s supervisor have long been largely untouchable. In the factory where she worked sewing jeans for brands like Levi’s, Wrangler and The Children’s Place, it was an open secret that male supervisors traded sex for promotions and permanent jobs. And that they made work life painful for those who refused to give it to them.
But not long after Moshoeshoe’s confrontation with her boss last year, she says she saw a poster at the factory advertising an information line to report sexual harassment.
Though she didn’t know it, when she dialed that number, she was part of a grand experiment — one that advocates say has the potential to help make factories safer for women around the world. It’s modeled after labor hotlines in Bangladesh’s garment factories and Florida’s tomato fields.
The line in Lesotho is trying that approach for sexual harassment complaints, giving workers a way to report problems to someone outside the factory. That’s particularly important in an industry that is both dominated globally by women, and where sexual harassment is a documented, endemic crisis.
In an industry that has long been largely allowed to police itself, these hotlines are part of a greater movement toward accountability for brands and factories. But even their supporters are quick to point out that they are not a cure-all. Many of the conditions that make gender-based violence hard to stamp out in the world at large — like stigma and victim-blaming — exist in factories too. And in an industry beholden to the frenzied pace and dizzyingly low prices of fast fashion, working conditions remain difficult to regulate.
Still, experts say, putting outside eyes on factories is a good place to start. “Left to their own devices, companies have largely failed to improve working conditions in their supply chains,” says Jason Judd, executive director of the New Conversations Project at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations school. Since the 1990s, he notes, the dominant model in the industry has been a system of social audits, where brands pay independent assessors to inspect factories for poor working conditions. But the quality of those audits is extremely inconsistent, and consequences for poorly-scoring factories are uneven at best.
But Judd says that in recent years, brands have begun to feel increased outside pressure — from consumers and governments in the countries where they sell their clothes — to be more rigorous in policing their suppliers. This comes at a time when the pandemic has exposed massive vulnerabilities on the supply side of clothing manufacturing, with brands canceling billions of dollars of orders, leaving factories and workers in the lurch. That has created, in many parts of the world, tenuous alliances between unions and factories, both desperate to keep business from shutting down.
Lesotho’s sexual harassment line is one such example of this. On a recent morning, 20 garment workers sat in a pre-fab conference room beside the blue factory shell where they worked in a scrubby industrial district of Maseru, listening to union organizer Matsi Moalosi explain how the sexual harassment call line work.
“After you report, you can get counseling, and the situation will be investigated,” she explained, raising her voice over the chatter of hundreds of workers on their lunch hour outside.
The information line had its genesis in 2019, when a report by the labor NGO Worker Rights Consortium uncovered widespread sexual harassment and abuse at the factory group where Moalosi was doing the training — a Taiwanese company called Nien Hsing operating in Lesotho.
The factory owners initially denied the report. But its meticulous documentation, which included dozens of women independently reporting similar offenses, and a raft of bad press quickly forced the factories and the companies they manufactured for to the negotiating table.
The brands and factories struck a deal with local labor unions and women’s rights groups. If the factories wanted to keep getting orders from the likes of Levi’s, Wrangler, and other major brands, they would agree to do two things. First, they would consent to a third-party complaints line, staffed by the Lesotho Federation of Women Lawyers, a local NGO. A second NGO, the Workers Rights Watch, would then investigate the complaints and “direct and enforce remedies in accordance with the Lesotho law,” according to a press release from the Worker Rights Consortium at the time. The three major brands involved agreed that if Nien Hsing was found breaching the agreement, they would reduce or cut off orders until it returned to compliance.
Second, the factories would let the three major local trade unions, along with women’s rights NGOs, run trainings for every worker, teaching them how to access the hotline when they needed it.
Lesotho’s garment sector is heavily unionized, and “it was important to us that we run the trainings because we understand the issues workers are facing, and they trust us,” says Solong Senohe, general secretary of United Textile Employees (UNITE). “If someone who didn’t know them came and tried to teach them [about reporting sexual harassment], they might not trust that they should do it.”
“It was important that it was a shift to an independent reporting mechanism outside of the law, because in Lesotho, the law is not trusted,” says Mampiletso Kobo, an investigator at Workers Rights Watch. As in many parts of the world, rates of sexual violence are high in the country, and women frequently say they face “harsh and accusatory questioning” from police when they report it.
There hasn’t yet been any outside study of how well the hotline is working, and the pandemic has slowed down its rollout, but in Lesotho, workers and their advocates say they’re cautiously optimistic — with some caveats.
A hotline is a blunt instrument, and sexual harassment is a nuanced problem, they note. After Moshoeshoe reported her harassment, for instance, she says her former supervisor was given a warning and moved to a different department. But although the hotline is theoretically anonymous, everyone around her seemed to know she had reported him, and people began to take sides. “I don’t feel very good being at work now,” she says. At the same time, she says, “other women who have problems with their bosses, they come to me now to ask for help. I help make them brave.”
For now, the program is limited to Nien Hsing’s factories, which together employ about 10,000 workers. That means the women working in most of Lesotho’s garment factories remain unprotected, and so far there’s been no move to scale the hotline up, or try a similar model in other countries. Indeed, advocates say that enforcing meaningful, widespread protections for garment workers anywhere in the world remains a constant challenge in the face of pressure from fast fashion brands to keep prices low and produce at extraordinarily brisk rates.
“The companies are always threatening us that if we ask for too much, they will go to another country that’s cheaper,” says Rorisang Kamoli, a shop steward for UNITE at Nien Hsing.
Meanwhile, the Lesotho Federation of Women Lawyers, which runs the hotline, says many who call it actually have complaints about workplace conditions that are unrelated to sexual violence, showing just how great the need is for outside reporting mechanisms for all kinds of workplace issues.
Despite the problems it has brought her, Moshoeshoe says she is glad she reported what happened to her. “Before, men were never punished for this,” she says. “Now when we report, they hear us.”
Majirata Latela contributed reporting. This story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Ryan Lenora Brown is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She writes frequently about fashion, sustainability, and the women who make our clothes.