By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, Aug 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Three major U.S. brands vowed to crack down on abuse in Lesotho factories making their jeans on Thursday after an investigation found women were forced into sex to keep their jobs.
Levi Strauss & Co, Kontoor Brands - which owns Wrangler and Lee jeans - and The Children's Place signed agreements to end pervasive sexual harassment in five factories where some 10,000 women make their clothes in the tiny southern African country.
"These breakthrough agreements set an example for the rest of the apparel industry on how to address harassment and abuse," said Rola Abimourched, Senior Program Director with Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which uncovered the violations.
Garment manufacture - with a focus on denim for export - has grown to become the largest formal sector employer in the 2 million-strong landlocked southern African country over the last there decades, providing jobs to around 40,000 people.
WRC found women were regularly coerced into sexual activity with supervisors to get or keep their jobs in three factories making jeans for the U.S. brands, owned by Taiwan-based global jeans manufacturer Nien Hsing Textile.
Nien Hsing Textile employs one-quarter of the tiny African nation's total garment workforce.
"All of the women in my department have slept with the supervisor. For the women, this is about survival and nothing else," WRC quoted one female worker as saying. "If you say no, you won't get the job, or your contract will not be renewed."
Under a binding agreement signed by Nien Hsing, five trade unions and two women's rights groups, an independent committee will deal with complaints, identify if any violations have occurred and enforce remedies in accordance with Lesotho law.
Nien Hsing will also provide independently-appointed members of civil society access to its factories to interview workers and direct managers to refrain from retaliating against workers bringing complaints.
"We are committed to working to protect workers' rights and foster well-being at third party supplier factories, so that all workers at these facilities, especially female workers, feel safe, valued and empowered," the jeans makers said.
"We believe this multi-faceted program can create lasting change and better working environments at these factories, making a significant positive impact on the entire workforce."
Should there be any material breach by Nien Hsing of the agreement, each brand committed to reduce production orders until the manufacturer returns to compliance.
"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," said Nien Hsing's chairman Richard Chen.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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