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Investigation Uncovers Sexual, Physical Abuse at Fabletics Factory

Reporters Louise Donovan and Refiloe Makhaba Nkune spent eight months investigating sexual, verbal and physical harassment at Hippo Knitting, a Lesotho- based factory that supplies Kate Hudson’s Fabletics activewear brand. Interviews with more than 40 employees revealed a network of abuse stretching back years.

Producing garments for prominent U.S. brands has become the backbone of Lesotho’s economy in recent years. But sexual violence at the factories — and the government’s tepid response to the abuse — threatens the livelihoods of thousands of garment workers, ninety percent of whom are women. Thirteen of the workers we spoke to said their underwear and vulvas were often exposed during routine daily searches by supervisors. Another said a male supervisor tried to pressure her into a sexual relationship, and three allege sexual assault by male supervisors. Workers said they were forced to crawl on the floor as punishment and often humiliated and verbally abused by management. In one instance, a woman said she urinated on herself because she was prevented from accessing the bathroom.

The resulting story had impact before it was even published: after Donovan and Nkune reached out to Fabletics for comment, the brand vowed to do “everything in [their] power” to remedy the situation. Fabletics immediately suspended all operations with the factory, flew a “senior leader” to Lesotho within days to conduct an investigation and promised to keep providing workers’ full pay during this period. The owners of Hippo Knitting launched an independent audit and internal investigation, placing the factory’s HR manager on administrative leave — she has since been let go.

The investigation was published in print and online in partnership with TIME, shared widely on social media by workers’ rights groups and covered by global media outlets including The Daily Mail, InStyle, MSN, People, Yahoo and Fox. A version of the story also ran in print in the Lesotho Times, the country’s most widely read newspaper.

Since publication, police say they’re investigating at least three cases of sexual offense and public indecency at Hippo Knitting. “There are more allegations,” a police spokesperson told The Fuller Project, “though the victims are skeptical about reporting in fear of losing their jobs.” At least 12 more employees have stepped forward about abuses, according to unions on the ground in Lesotho — one union, IDUL, says it was our reporting that made these workers feel safe enough to speak up.

In response to our reporting, Hippo Knitting, Fabletics and IDUL have now announced a formal plan to combat gender-based violence at the factory. It includes career development and management opportunities for women, their representation in factory committees and trade union structures, a toll-free number workers can call for assistance and a memorandum of understanding signed with both the Ministry of Labour and Employment and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Relations. Actor Kate Hudson was asked about the findings of our investigation with TIME in a June CNBC interview, responding that the allegations were under investigation, “unacceptable and horrendous.

Hippo Knitting and Fabletics have also launched a corrective action plan for the factory that includes a new grievance procedure for reporting workplace violations, a new anti-intimidation and anti-retaliation policy, and a new process for non-invasive searches that includes dedicated privacy screening areas. Staff from the human rights organization Africa Rising will be on-site during all working hours at the factory when Hippo Knitting resumes production to oversee the corrective action plan.

Lifestyle influencer Melanie Murphy, a former brand ambassador for Fabletics, contacted the brand after our story published for the results of their investigation into Hippo Knitting. In a wardrobe-decluttering video on YouTube this January, she revealed that she stopped working for Fabletics because they never responded — she no longer feels comfortable representing the brand.

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