Another normal day in the factory…

By Marat Yu, of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR)

I recently went on a floor visit when observing a HERhealth training in a ready-made garment (RMG) factory in Bangladesh. It was another normal day in the factory – hundreds of female workers busy sewing and stitching in order to meet the hourly targets, and their supervisors, predominantly male, patrolling the lines and barking orders to correct errors and speed up the process. The floors were so noisy that one either had to speak up, or lowered themselves to speak in close proximity; I wonder what could have been said by the supervisor to his worker during those moments: a compliment, an order, or an insult?

Sexual harassment is endemic in the RMG industry in Bangladesh – about 60 percent of female workers have experienced harassment at work. It is an everyday experience for many female workers as they endure abusive behaviors, including offensive and sexually explicit language and physical acts. Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) supported icddr,b, an international research organization, to conduct qualitative research to better understand the forms and causes of violence in factories. Key findings include:

  • Emotional violence in the form of verbal abuse, scolding and insulting in public are common in RMG factories. Female workers are especially vulnerable to harassment when they fail to meet production targets, make a mistake, or request leave. Verbal abuse is sometimes accompanied by physical violence, e.g. slapping, pushing or shoving, hair-pulling, etc.
  • Sexual violence is the most hidden form of violence, and there is high acceptance of that among female workers. Victims do not want to report via the official complaint channel as they are afraid of retaliation or losing their jobs. Their reputation may be tarnished as they will be perceived as “loose women”, which will in turn affect their marital prospects or marriages.
  • Middle-level management, e.g. line supervisors, chiefs and production managers, are the main perpetrators of violence. They face heavy pressure for achieving production targets and perceive that abuse is the most effective tool for pushing workers to achieve their targets. Some of them also abuse their power to attain sexual gratification.
  • Factory owners tend to adopt a military style in running the business. Ex-army officers are recruited to lead the human resources department and authoritative supervisors are often appreciated and rewarded by the company.
  • Beyond the factory wall, many female workers have also experienced intimate partner violence (IPV) in their families. According to a previous study conducted by icddr,b as part of the WHO multi-country study, every two out of five women report experiencing physical violence from an intimate partner in urban Bangladesh. IPV carries an economic cost, as victims display significantly higher levels of work distraction and have greater employment instability.

Sexual harassment not only deprives workers of their basic rights and compromises their well-being, workers in such negative environments also tend to have lower productivity and morale and higher turnover, which directly affects business. Although it is a major risk in the supply chain, existing interventions such as auditing and setting up anti-harassment committees are not enough to tackle the roots causes; when carried out in silos without support of awareness-raising activities, such measures may even cause backlash, e.g. proactive committee members being harassed or sacked.

With the support of DFID’s What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Programme, BSR’s HERrespect will take a holistic approach to promote positive gender relations in the workplace and in the household. While the program is still in the design phase, the 10-month program will include:

  • Training for middle management and workers, both male and female, on gender awareness and interpersonal skills to prevent and address sexual harassment and IPV;
  • Guidance on best practices and policies to prevent and address sexual harassment. This workstream will be implemented in collaboration with ILO/IFC’s Better Work program, and
  • Training for peer leaders on gender in workers’ cafes, where workers gather for leisure and learning after working hours.

HERrespect presents an opportunity for responsible companies to ensure all workers in their supply chain have access to a safe and empowering work environment. For more information on how to participate in this program, contact HERproject Manager Elissa Goldenberg (egoldenberg@bsr.org).

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