Kontoor Brands Inc. has agreed to take several steps to protect female factory workers in Lesotho. The women, who assemble jeans, say they have been harassed and sexually abused by men who work at the plants. 

Kontoor Brands Inc. is one of three U.S. apparel manufacturers and retailers participating in a two-year pilot program aimed at preventing violence and harassment against female garment workers in the southern African country of Lesotho.

Kontoor, which is based in Greensboro, completed its spin-off from VF Corp. on May 23, and makes Rock and Republic, Lee and Wrangler goods.

There are more than 10,000 factory workers in Lesotho, the majority of which are women.

The affected workers sew, sand, wash and add rivets to blue jeans and other apparel, including the Lee and Wrangler brands.

A 2018 Worker Rights Consortium investigation documented a pattern of sexual abuse and harassment in Taiwan-based Nien Hsing Textile factories in Lesotho. According to the report, there were accusations that managers and supervisors, often from other countries, forced female workers into sexual relationships in exchange for job security or promotions. The workers described inappropriate touching, sexual demands and crude comments.

When the workers objected, they faced discrimination and retaliation, the report says. The factory managers also fought union organizing efforts.

The agreements call for establishing an independent investigative organization to receive worker complaints, conduct investigations and assessments, identify violations of a jointly developed code of conduct, and direct and enforce remedies in accordance with the Lesotho law.

The program will involve worker-to-worker and management training, education and related activities.

Kontoor said in a statement it was “deeply concerned to learn of documented allegations of sexual abuse and harassment” at the Nien Hsing plants.

The company said the pilot program is “intended to be a model ... that others can replicate and improve upon around the world, regardless of business sector.”

“We remain committed to ensuring our contracted supply chain partners are operating safe, respectful and secure workplaces, and to implementing positive, protective measures so that all workers, especially female workers, feel safe, valued and empowered.”

The two-year program includes Levi Strauss & Co., and The Children’s Place. The U.S. groups will provide most of the funding for the program, in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Participating in the agreement are five Lesotho-based trade unions and women’s rights organizations, as well as U.S.-based Solidarity Center and Workers United.

Each brand agreement will operate in tandem with a separate agreement involving Nien Hsing Textile, the trade unions and women’s rights organizations.

Richard Chen, chairman of Nien Hsing, said the recommendation are being put into effect “immediately, comprehensively and with measurable success.”

Rola Abimourched, senior program director at the Worker Rights Consortium, said the group is hopeful that “a series of binding agreements between Nien Hsing, its brand customers and unions and women’s organizations, that guarantee protection for workers and punishment for harassers.”

Besides its mills and manufacturing facilities in Lesotho, the company also has facilities in Mexico, Taiwan and Vietnam.

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Richard Craver is a reporter with the Winston-Salem Journal.

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