September 12 2011
Kelly Pike, PhD CB/ICL '12
Last Spring the International Programs Office provided me with a grant that allowed me to travel to Lesotho, a small country in Sub Saharan Africa, for the purpose of conducting field work for my PhD. For my field research, I have been examining variation in labour standards compliance in Lesotho’s clothing industry. On one hand I have been looking at the role of ownership nationality and end market in influencing compliance. At the same time I have been studying the potential impact of emerging forms of social regulation in ensuring compliance and improving standards. In this case, that is the joint ILO-IFC program known as Better Work Lesotho – a multi-stakeholder initiative that facilitates social dialogue among actors in the industry, conducts factory audits, and provides training opportunities where problem areas are identified.
Traveling to Lesotho allowed me to interview stakeholders in the industry such as representatives from the Ministry of Labour, the Lesotho Textile Exporters Association, the Lesotho National Development Corporation, and all five unions representing clothing workers. The most exciting aspect of the research, however, has been meeting with the factory workers themselves.
There are about 30 factories and 40,000 workers in Lesotho’s clothing industry. Approximately two thirds of these factories are Chinese-owned while the remaining factories are South African-owned. The majority of the Chinese factories are clustered in the city of Maseru and the South African firms are located 80km north in Maputsoe. Virtually all of the Chinese firms export to the US and many to big-name brands such as Levis and Gap. Due to the rise of corporate social responsibility in the US, these brands are exerting more pressure on their supplier factories to comply both with core international labour standards as well as local labour law. The South African factories, however, are supplying primarily to South African retailers who are not under as much pressure.
When I was in Lesotho, I had the opportunity to speak with workers from both Maseru and Maputsoe. Each day after work, for two weeks, a group of 10 workers would meet me in town (away from the factories) either at union headquarters or an ILO-sponsored office. There, they had a chance to feel comfortable opening up about their experiences at work – something that is not always possible when they are interviewed by auditors within the factories themselves. In addition, we spent an entire day with 60 workers at a women’s hostel where they completed a questionnaire that touched on issues such as workplace health and safety, discrimination based on gender or HIV/Aids status, employment relations, and household spending patterns, to name a few.
The kind of information shared by these workers has been incredibly valuable as it impressed upon me just how nuanced some of the issues are. Even when a factory can score high on compliance, it does not mean that the workers enjoy any quality of life. Minimum wages are not enough to sustain basic monthly bills. Workers experience insults and humiliation both from Chinese managers and their own locally-staffed human resource managers. Transport is available for workers, but only during the day and not all the way to their village gates. This means that workers must walk through dangerous parts of town in the dark hours of the winter night. It also means that, if workers on the night shift sustain any injuries, they must wait there until morning when transport begins again.
These kinds of issues cannot be identified in a factory walk-through, and these stories can only unfold by speaking directly with workers in a safe environment. The International Programs grant that I received last year enabled me to travel to Lesotho to conduct this research and engage with workers, which I am very grateful for. To begin with, the field work has enhanced the quality of my PhD experience (and hopefully the final product!) More importantly, it has given me a better perspective on the lifestyles and working conditions of some of the people who make the clothes I wear.
I am attaching several pictures, one of which includes a Jansport sweatshirt made in Lesotho, which I actually bought at the Cornell Campus Store. The others capture a few of the images I’ve seen in the process of my research, including the industrial areas, the meeting places with workers, and the surrounding countryside.