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Sexual harassment is prevalent in the garment industry: Human Rights Watch

By Marjorie van Elven

13 Feb 2019


One week after a groundbreaking research revealed the abuses endured by home-based garment workers in India, of whom 95 percent are female, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has published a report calling on the apparel sector to do more to combat sexual harassment against women and girls across the supply chain.

HRW found that sexual harassment is rampant in garment factories in India, Pakistan, Cambodia and Bangladesh, countries where many international fashion companies manufacture their clothes. A staggering 59 countries in the world do not have any specific laws governing sexual harassment at work, but even when they do, as is the case of Pakistan and India, many workers are not fully aware of their rights or are scared of retaliations if they complain.

Commenting on a collective anonymous letter sent in 2016 to an Indian union by 11 female garment workers, in which they complain about daily inappropriate comments, HRW said: “women fear retaliation both at the factory and at home. Being unmarried and from conservative families, the women are dependent on their families’ permission to work in the factories. If the families lear of the harassment they endure, they risk being told not to work outside the home”.

Sexual harassment takes several forms, such as comments, jokes, winking, propositions, touching and even downright insulting. “Verbal abuse is common in factories across different countries”, wrote HRW in its report. “Workers from different countries have described being humiliated with insults such as ‘dog’, ‘donkey’, ‘prostitute’, ‘whore’, and ‘bitch’”. Those insults are often uttered when female workers make requests regarding their sanitation or rest needs during menstrual cycles.

Sometimes, sexual harassment extends even to situations outside the workplace. An Indian garment worker cited in the report said her supervisor repeatedly called her cell phone after work hours asking for sexual favors, promising that he would give her a lighter workload and sanction time-off whenever she wanted. When she took the issue to the Human Resources Department, they shrugged it off saying such behavior is “normal” and she would have to deal with it.

So, what to do?

HRW calls on the apparel sector to support a new International Labor Organization (ILO) convention to address violence and harassment at work. “Governments and businesses leaders committed to workplace equality should back those workers’ call”, wrote HRW. “They should vote for a binding ILO convention in 2019 when it is debated at the International Labor Conference in Geneva. That, in turn, will pave the way for rights groups around the world to champion overdue legal reforms or push for better enforcement of existing laws”.

In addition, the organization recommended brands to stop relying on social audits as they are “not equipped to capture and address sexual harassment or other forms of gender-based violence at work”. Auditors interviewed by HRW said it would be preferable to interview workers off-site to guarantee full confidentiality. However, brands and factories often pay them a “very limited” amount of money, causing them to conduct mostly short, group interviews on-site. It is unlikely workers will reveal the truth when managers know exactly who’s being interviewed. When in a group, people also tend to shy away from talking about sensitive or taboo topics, especially if the group is made up of both men and women.

HRW analyzed 50 third-party audits and found that none of them mentioned the gender composition of the groups interviewed. Surveyed auditors also reported they often have to ask questions about a wide range of topics, leaving little time to discuss sexual harassment in-depth. “You have to ignore a whole bunch of things you can sense is a problem. Because you have to pay all your staff salaries and what do you want to do? A three-week audit?”, one auditor is quoted as saying.

HRW recommendations to global apparel and footwear companies:

  • 1. Publicly support an ILO convention to tackle violence and harassment at work
  • 2. Publish the global list of factories they work with.
  • 3. Carry out periodic studies to examine gender-based violence and harassment at work in every production country.
  • 4. Brands should ask and map out as part of sourcing and compliance information, whether the factory they are placing orders with has sister companies owned by the same parent company.
  • 5. Take steps to examine and remedy the company’s purchasing practices to prevent and mitigate risks of abusive practices in the supply chain.

Picture: Women workers in a garment factory in Cambodia. © 2014 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch; Source: Human Rights Watch website, Creative Commons license.

Human Rights Watch
Sexual harassment