Despite progress gender-based violence and harassment is still a reality for global garment workers

By Rola Abimourched –

Today marks the end of this year’s “16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence” campaign. Since its inception in the 1990s, feminist organisations, activists, and courageous individuals have tirelessly foregrounded women’s experiences of violence in their homes, communities, and workplaces. Beyond raising awareness, organisations and individuals have used these sixteen days to catalyse a shift away from the status quo. They have called upon governments, communities, and private companies to hold perpetrators of gender-based violence accountable.

Their calls were partially heard earlier this year with the historic adoption of the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Violence and Harassment (C190). This is the first binding international legal instrument to ever address violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work.

Even with this progress, all too often the voices of low-wage and/or marginalised workers remain unheard. Workers are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence in sectors where the power imbalance between workers and management is the greatest, such as the garment industry. Indeed, women garment workers – the majority of the global garment workforce – are systematically subjected to sexual harassment and violence at work. While gender-based violence and harassment disproportionately affects women and girls, all workers could be subject to this type of abuse and harassment.

“All of the women in my department have slept with the supervisor. For the women, this is about survival and nothing else.”

Since its founding almost twenty years ago, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) has reported on and sought remedy for garment workers who have suffered countless violations of their rights, including non-payment of wages and terminal compensation, health and safety violations, forced and unpaid overtime, verbal and physical abuse, and sexual harassment. Women workers have told us about managers and supervisors who made sexual comments, touched them inappropriately, and coerced them into sexual relationships. Women have also reported that the pervasiveness of this type of behaviour and the lack of accountability for perpetrators has created a culture of acceptance and fear of reporting abuse.

This culture is a recurring theme in the WRC’s work. When investigating the conditions of a Honduran factory in 2018, for example, we revealed incidents of sexual coercion by several managerial staff, including one worker who reported being told these chilling words by a manager upon hire: “Be good to me and things will go well for you.”

We also found extensive and severe gender-based violence and harassment at three factories in Lesotho owned by a Taiwanese global jeans manufacturer. Nearly two-thirds of the women workers interviewed reported having experienced sexual harassment or abuse, or knowing co-workers who had. Workers described a culture of impunity and acceptance of gender-based violence and harassment as a norm. “Many supervisors demand sexual favours and bribes from prospective employees”, one worker said. “All of the women in my department have slept with the supervisor. For the women, this is about survival and nothing else.”

The many faces of gender-based violence

Gender-based violence and harassment refers to an entire continuum of abuse. The Asia Floor Wage Alliance’s Gender-Based Violence Escalation Ladder identifies gendered bullying as a precursor to more aggressive forms of gender-based violence and abuse like physical and sexual violence and discrimination. We have found that workers can be subject to discriminatory practices because of their gender, gender identity or expression, and perceived gender. Discrimination around pregnancy is particularly rife, including rejecting applicants who are pregnant, requiring pregnancy tests as a condition of hire, and firing workers who become pregnant.

Other workers have reported facing discrimination because of their perceived gender identity or sexual orientation. A 2019 investigation of a factory in El Salvador documented discrimination against LGBTQ workers by factory supervisors and managers, including discriminatory remarks and firings of workers because of their gender identity or their perceived sexual orientation. One openly gay worker reported that two supervisors told him that they were prophets and that they had visions, and that these visions showed that he was “a deviant and was ruining the [production] modules.”

Factory managers actively conceal violations from brand auditors and pressure employees to not speak truthfully about the conditions they face.

Our investigative work has shown over and over again that gender-based violence and harassment flourishes in environments where workers are not free to exercise their rights to freedom of association and where factory management actively suppresses these rights. Managers in the garment factories in Lesotho, for example, unilaterally and unlawfully terminated a memorandum of understanding with a workers’ union, attempted to interfere with internal union matters, and retaliated against employees for exercising their associational rights. Such actions only exacerbate workers’ fear of reporting abuse, and as a result gender-based violence at their places of work continues.

When workers do report gender-based violence and harassment to factory management, they often risk losing their jobs or further harassment. Workers in Lesotho were reluctant to report gender-based violence and harassment because it would put their livelihoods at risk, and because they believed that the perpetrators would escape punishment. And when one worker in El Salvador spoke up about experiencing discrimination based on his sexual orientation, the human resources manager told him to use the bathroom when it was empty in order to avoid harassment.

Accountability now

The snapshots above represent a wider trend of gender-based violence and harassment in garment factories around the world. They demonstrate that the main mechanisms for addressing abuse in use today, namely voluntary codes of conduct and internal grievance mechanisms, do not do enough to prevent gender-based violence and harassment at work or to provide remedy to those who have suffered abuse. They are inadequate because they do not hold brands and retailers to account for failing to meaningfully address abuse and harassment in their suppliers’ operations. In each case described above, brands sourcing from these factories failed to detect abuses through their voluntary codes of conduct and monitoring programmes.

In Lesotho, workers testified during off-site interviews that factory managers actively concealed violations from brand auditors and pressured employees not to speak truthfully about working conditions to brand representatives visiting the factory. Too often workers’ only option to report abuse is the factory’s internal grievance mechanism, which requires workers to trust the very management responsible for the abuses they face. Workers understandably have little trust in such mechanisms.

A fundamentally different approach was announced in August 2019 with the conclusion of a set of landmark agreements to combat gender-based violence and harassment in Lesotho’s garment sector. Leading apparel brands, a coalition of labour unions and women’s rights advocates, and the jeans producing factory discussed above are among its signatories. Recognising that the only way to root out gender-based violence in global supply chains is by centring the voices and participation of workers, and through binding and enforceable agreements with businesses who are responsible for work conditions, the 2019 Lesotho Agreements provide a radical departure from voluntary systems of corporate self-regulation.

Modelled after the Fair Food Program, which has been extraordinarily successful in eradicating sexual harassment and coercion in Florida’s agricultural fields, the Lesotho Agreements provide for an independent monitoring body and a safe reporting channel. The programme also provides an information and complaint line run by a women’s rights organisation, support and counselling to workers, and extensive worker-to-worker training, education, and related activities.

These binding and enforceable agreements present a radical departure from the status quo. Beyond Lesotho, these agreements set a vital precedent in the fight against gender-based violence in the workplace.

Rola Abimourched is Senior Program Director at the Worker Rights Consortium.

This article was originally posted on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery on December 10, 2019.