Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) movement leaders gather in New York!

From left, Cathy Albisa (National Economic and Social Rights Initiative), Gerardo Reyes Chavez (Coalition of Immokalee Workers), Sam Mokhele (National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union), Thusoana Ntlama (Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho), Rola Abimourched (Worker Rights Consortium), and Judge Laura Safer Espinoza (Fair Food Standards Council) speak on a panel at last week’s Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network gathering on new WSR initiatives. The event highlighted the groundbreaking recent agreement among unions and women’s rights organizations in Lesotho, apparel factories, and major international brands to combat gender-based violence in the country’s garment industry.

Breakthrough in Lesotho apparel industry brings leaders from four different continents together to discuss growing WSR movement!…

Cathy Albisa, NESRI: “The biggest takeaway today should be our understanding of the importance of connection. From the problem, to the solution, to scaling the solution, how we are connected defines the outcome… The WSR Network creates the next level of connection together – connections across movements, and across sectors.”

Last week, the Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network (WSRN) and its members – hailing from across the United States, Bangladesh, the Netherlands, and, most recently, Lesotho in Southern Africa – gathered with supporters from the world of philanthropy in New York City for an uplifting evening event to discuss the very latest developments in the WSR movement and the exciting future of the breakthrough model for protecting workers’ fundamental human rights in global supply chains.  The event came on the heels of the birth of the newest WSR program, a groundbreaking initiative to fight sexual harassment and gender-based violence in Lesotho’s garment industry (in case you missed the announcement in August, make sure to get the full story here!).  Beyond the victory in Lesotho, the Network lifted up the efforts of dairy workers from Vermont and construction workers from Minnesota, who shared how they, too, are using the WSR model to monitor and enforce their own rights, building off the success of existing programs such as the Fair Food Program and the Bangladesh Accord. 

Today, we bring you a few of the highlights from last week’s gathering, which served to underscore the vast power and potential of the WSR model, as well as plans for the expansion of the model through cross-sector collaboration into new industries and regions where fundamental human rights protections are desperately needed.

Following a welcome from the evening’s generous hosts – the Freedom Fund, the SAGE Fund, the NoVo Foundation, and NEO Philanthropy – the evening started off with a brief introduction from the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative’s Executive Director, Cathy Albisa, who provided a frame for the evening:

“The biggest takeaway today should be our understanding of the importance of connection. From the problem, to the solution, to scaling the solution, how are we are connected defines the outcome… The WSR Network creates the next level of connection together – connections across movements, and across sectors. We do this first and foremost by building relationships across these movements and sectors. We document strategies, transfer them across efforts, create affinity groups within sectors, create working groups to strengthen strategic areas such as investment strategies, facilitate ongoing dialogue across members to refine and define the model, and finally, build collective strategy and collective focus.”

Cathy then introduced and moderated an inspiring panel focused on the most recent WSR program in the garment industry in Lesotho.  Here are a few of the highlights from the panel:

Thusoana Ntlama, Programs Coordinator for the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho (right), and Sam Mokhele, General Secretary of the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union (center), spoke about their experiences creating the first worker-driven social responsibility program in Lesotho.

Thusoana Ntlama: “We are able to stand together, as one.  We haven’t started yet, but just yesterday, we were able to establish the Workers’ Rights Watch.  It is not easy, this is a new thing altogether.  We also need the support of the Fair Food Program, because this is the baby of that initiative… we are hoping that with communication and materials developed to educate supervisors and workers, that will help us set up the program.” 

Rola Abimourched of the Workers Rights Consortium (center) spoke about the painstaking investigative work of uncovering the abuses in the Nien Hsing garment factories in Lesotho, and the subsequent negotiations with major international brands.

Rola Abimourched: “In 2017 and 2018, the WRC conducted investigations into labor rights violations into the Nien Hsing factories in Lesotho. Nien Hsing, just to give you perspective, is an important global player in producing jeans.  They’re well-known, and they have factories in other countries.  In Lesotho, they’re a major employer, with over 10,000 workers, the majority of whom are women.  Our investigation, which covered all wage and hour violations, overtime, and other abuses, also identified pervasive instances of gender-based violence and sexual harassment… workers would not report [these abuses], and if they reported, it was only because they were afraid of being terminated.  Even then, they were terminated for reporting, and the supervisor or manager stayed on…

… We went to the brands and laid out the findings of the WRC’s report, pointing out the gravity of the abuses in these factories, which clearly violated the brands’ labor codes. We asked the brands to enter negotiations toward a binding agreement, making it clear that we would otherwise have to proceed to immediately publish a report. Given the climate here in the US around #MeToo, it is not surprising that the brands agreed to negotiate. I have to also highlight the unions and NGOs coming together and standing strong behind this – they were not accepting a CSR program, they wanted a negotiated agreement with a strong focus on accountability.”

Gerardo Reyes Chavez of the CIW (second from left) spoke about the parallels between the conditions in Lesotho garment factories and those farmworkers faced in the Florida tomato industry before the Fair Food Program, as well as the FFP’s success in making those abuses a thing of the past on FFP farms.

Gerardo Reyes: “The conditions in Lesotho sound exactly the same as the conditions in the fields, prior to the Fair Food Program.  When we started to implement the FFP, we were able to create – along with the brands who signed on – the power that was necessary for workers to be able to eliminate something that is, after all, an abuse of power…  We are honored to be here to celebrate the victory of garment workers in Lesotho, and for whatever challenges that lie ahead, know that CIW will be there with you.” 

Judge Laura Safer Espinoza (far right) detailed the strategic collaboration among the unions and women’s rights NGOs in Lesotho, the Workers Rights Consortium, the Solidarity Center, and the Fair Food Program in the lead up to the August agreement between the brands and the Lesotho organizations.

Judge Laura Safer Espinoza: “I’m sure I speak for my colleagues in saying that most inspirational moment for all of us was last November in Immokalee, when CIW and FFSC hosted a very moving exchange with representatives of the three unions and two women’s organizations that were working toward this groundbreaking agreement. That exchange was supported by the WSR Network and organized by WRC and the Solidarity Center. Over two days of very rich discussions we were able to learn about the ongoing work in Lesotho. And we shared the many pieces of the FFP that make it work so effectively, from the campaign to enlist buyers, to the structure of program agreements, to our Code of Conduct, intensive worker education, and the auditing and complaint resolution procedures carried out by the FFSC.” 

Following the panel, the room then broke into small groups to discuss in greater detail the Lesotho agreement, as well as two other WSR initiatives, the Milk with Dignity Program in Vermont, based on a legally binding contract that commits Ben & Jerry’s to implement a worker-driven human rights program in its Northeast dairy supply chain…

Will Lambek (center in blue shirt) and Marita Canedo (to his immediate left) of the Milk With Dignity Program describe how their binding agreement with Ben & Jerry’s is transforming conditions in the dairy industry.

… and the Building Dignity and Respect Program (BDR), designed to build a Twin Cities construction industry that advances the human rights of workers and the long-term interests of developers and contractors.

Veronica Mendez Moore (center, in black sweater) and Carlos Garcia Velasco (to her right) with CTUL in the Twin Cities describe how the Building Respect and Dignity Program focuses on non-union areas of the industry where the most severe abuses of workers’ rights are taking place in order to end these abuses and raise standards in the industry.

All in all, it was an uplifting evening with an eye to the future, with budding WSR programs across the U.S. and the world leading the way. We will give the final word to Sam Mokhele from Lesotho, who summed up the forward-looking vision of the evening’s event: “Our objective is to cover the workers who are not yet covered, because gender-based violence affects all the workers in other factories, too.  We want to get to all workers.  We want to call gender-based violence a thing of the past.”