Kate Hudson’s Fabletics athleisure label has suspended one of its suppliers in Lesotho in southern Africa after dozens of workers complained of rampant sexual and physical abuse that left them in a state of constant fear for years.
At least 38 current workers described an atmosphere of harassment and debasement within the walls of Hippo Knitting, a Taiwanese company where Fabletics sports bras and yoga leggings are manufactured in the capital of Maseru, according to a report published Wednesday by Time and The Fuller Project, a global nonprofit newsroom that focuses on women’s issues. Hudson, who starred in movies such as “Almost Famous” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” co-founded Fabletics in 2013 with business partners Don Ressler and Adam Goldenberg.
One woman told Time and The Fuller Project that a male supervisor tried to pressure her into a sexual relationship, while three women accused their male supervisors of sexually assaulting them. Staffers said they were often humiliated and berated by management, including 13 who said their underwear and vulvas were exposed daily during searches by supervisors on-site. Others described being forced to crawl on the floor by their supervisors as punishment. “I had an injury on my knees, and they were inflamed,” one employee said. “I cried the whole time, as I was in pain.”
At the same time, both workers and Lesotho-based unions expressed concerns that the roughly 1,000 workers at Hippo Knitting could lose their jobs if Fabletics cuts ties with the factory. “We are tired, we need help, we work with bleeding hearts,” said a woman who has been employed at the facility for a decade.
“The allegations against Hippo Knitting are absolutely horrifying,” Meera Bhatia, president of expert services at Fabletics, said in a statement to Sourcing Journal. “Immediately after receiving the report, Fabletics suspended all operations at Hippo Knitting.” One of Fabletics’s senior leaders, she added, is now running a “comprehensive” investigation in collaboration with an independent investigator on the ground. In the meantime, the brand will continue to pay workers their full wages.
The garment industry is Lesotho’s largest formal sector employer, with more than 38,000 workers, 90 percent of whom are women. The United States is the top destination for Lesotho’s garment exports, which were worth $303 million in 2019, according to USAID TradeHub.
Lesotho has been plagued by allegations of supplier misconduct before. Three Lesotho garment factories owned by Taiwanese company Nien Hsing Textile Co. hit the headlines in 2019 after a Worker Rights Consortium report uncovered an alleged system of “gender-based violence and harassment” at the facilities, which made clothes for The Children’s Place, Levi Strauss and Wrangler owner Kontoor Brands.
The brands ended up signing an enforceable contract, covering 10,000 workers and known as the Lesotho Agreement, that required Nien Hsing to comply with a worker-led program to eliminate sexual harassment and abuse. The agreement also helped establish an independent office with the power to investigate worker complaints and call for the punishment or termination of perpetrators of any such abuse.
Labor-rights groups described the Lesotho Agreement as groundbreaking, as well as a “step forward” for the model of worker-driven social responsibility agreements that can help employees achieve labor-rights improvements that voluntary industry initiatives have failed to generate.
“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 socio-economic rights of women in the workplace,” Thusoana Ntlama, program coordinator at the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho, one of the program’s partners, said at the time.
Most of the factories across Lesotho have sexual harassment, Tšepang Makakole, deputy general secretary of Lesotho’s National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union, which represents more than 4,000 workers, told Time and The Fuller Project, but a lot goes unsaid because people are afraid of losing their jobs.
“If the factory doesn’t have [the Lesotho Agreement in place]…that’s the problem,” he said. “People know if they speak up it won’t be easy for them.”
It’s this same agreement that Fabletics is now invoking, perhaps for the whole of the country, where a broader pattern of abuse can be found.
“These workers’ accounts demand strong action and today we’re contacting the organizers of the Lesotho Agreement to discuss the process of joining and expanding the binding, worker-led program that targets gender-based violence and harassment in Lesotho,” Bhatia said. “Fabletics’ commitment to the people of this region remains resolute.”
A representative for Hudson told Time and The Fuller Project that the entertainer had no knowledge of the reports until she received the inquiry, but that these allegations “are serious and must be addressed comprehensively and immediately.”
“Fabletics management attested to Kate that they maintain the highest ethical and social standards in their factories and workplaces and have commenced a full and comprehensive investigation,” the representative said.