At least 12 people, including two children aged 7 and 9, were injured this week at garment-worker demonstrations in Lesotho after police fired at them with rubber bullets, and, in one instance, live rounds, worker unions in the southern African country reported Wednesday.
Eight of them, who had been peacefully protesting in Maputsoe and Maseru for two promised but unfulfilled minimum-wage increases since last Friday, were hospitalized, Sam Mokhele, general secretary of the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union told the Solidarity Center, which is aligned with the AFL-CIO labor federation. Others were beaten and arrested.
“Our garment-worker members, with whom we are already addressing rampant gender-based violence in their factories, want the world to know that their peaceful rallies in support of scheduled wage increases were met with outsize police violence,” said May Rathakan, general secretary of the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho.
Lesotho’s unions, both garment-related and otherwise, are urging the government to uphold two missed incremental minimum-wage increases—for 2020/2021 and 2021/2022—that were scheduled to be implemented on April 1 but have since been postponed indefinitely. Six private-sector unions warned two weeks ago that a work stoppage could be imminent if the wage increases continue to be delayed, since workers are struggling to subsist on current salaries.
Workers, who earn a monthly floor wage of 1,696 loti ($121.84), or well below the living wage of 4,000 loti ($287.36), are demanding a 20 percent bump in their paychecks this year.
State violence in response to garment workers’ “legitimate and peaceful demands” for a livable minimum wage “flies in the face of human-rights norms,” said Christopher Johnson, Africa regional program director for Solidarity Center, noting that the right to strike is enshrined in the constitutions of at least 90 countries and “has in effect become customary international law.”
But Lesotho has a long history of human-rights violations against political and labor activists. The latest U.S. State Department human-rights report on Lesotho said that members of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service and Lesotho Defense Force have committed “numerous” human-rights abuses, including “unlawful or arbitrary killings; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions [and] arbitrary arrest or detention.”
The country, which is encircled by South Africa, has also been plagued by multiple reports of garment-factory owner misconduct, most recently at Hippo Knitting, a Taiwanese-owned facility that supplies sports bras and yoga leggings to Kate Hudson’s Fabletics athleisure label.
“The company asks women workers to undress during searches when they knock off work and justifies this by saying they suspect that the workers are stealing from the factory,” Mathabiso Moshabe, a shop steward at the factory, told IndustriALL Global Union. “One of the human resources managers teases workers that since they undress for others to take photos; why not undress for body searches. The manager also makes fun of their bodies, mocks how they dress, and the shoes they wear.
The Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho, whose members make up more than half of Hippo Knitting’s 1,000 workers, was preparing to sign a recognition agreement with the factory in the wake of the Time and The Fuller Project report, it said, but management canceled the stop order agreement for union dues after workers demanded the gazetting of new wages by the government.
The union has fought sexual abuse elsewhere in the country, most notably at Taiwanese company Nien Hsing Textile Co., which gained notoriety in 2019 after a Worker Rights Consortium investigation brought to light an alleged system of “gender-based violence and harassment” at the facilities, which made jeans for The Children’s Place, Levi Strauss and Wrangler owner Kontoor Brands.
The brands ended up signing an enforceable contract, dubbed the Lesotho Agreement, that required Nien Hsing to comply with a worker-led program to protect its 10,000 workers from sexual harassment and abuse. The agreement also helped establish an independent office with the authority to investigate worker complaints and call for the punishment or termination of perpetrators of any such abuse.
Fabletics has called for an expansion of the Lesotho agreement to cover Hippo Knitting and other factories in the nation.
“We condemn sexual and gender-based violence at Hippo Knitting which is a violation of human and trade union rights and the dignity of the women workers,” said Christina Hajagos-Clausen, textile director at IndustriALL Global Union. “We support IDUL in its campaign to end the abuses in Lesotho’s garment factories.”
Lesotho’s apparel sector, which focuses on denim for export, is one of the largest garment manufacturing industries in Sub-Saharan Africa. It benefits from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides duty-free access to the U.S. market. One of the country’s largest formal industry employers, it provides jobs to more than 40,000 workers, 70 percent of whom are women.