Gender-Based Abuse, Violence, and Harassment against Women Garment Workers in Asia Uncovered

The global garment and footwear industry that is worth $2.4 trillion employs workers from all over the world.

Clothes and shoes produced by companies such as H&M, GAP, and Walmart make their way into stores and onto racks in the United States, Australia, Canada, Europe, and Japan. This labor is acquired from countries in Asia, Latin America among others.

The Asian garment industry has roughly 55 million women employees, which makes them about 80% of the total workforce. There have been numerous studies conducted that reveal the prevalence of gender-based violence in the garment supply chain. Factory owners and managers are bending and even breaking local labor compliance rules that govern the management of their employees. According to statistics, 75% of workers in the garment industry in Bangladesh have been verbally abused at work while 20% of them are victims of physical abuse. Workers in India and Cambodia share a similar story. Female employees are being dismissed because of pregnancy, denied maternity leaves, retaliated against for joining or forming unions, and forced into working overtime or otherwise risking losing their jobs.

One victim, Radhika, who is a single mother with a physically challenged daughter works in H&M’s Bengaluru garment factory. In September 2017, she was hit and kicked for not achieving the production target. Shahida, a 26-year-old former sewing machine operator in a Walmart supplier factory in Dhaka was sexually harassed by a male employer in exchange for a promotion. When she refused his advances, he threatened to fire her. A few days later, she was asked by her general manager to resign immediately, a decision the Human Resources team deemed out of their hands. Even the police couldn’t accept her complaint as there was no evidence backing it up. She was bullied by management and overworked until she saw no better option than to quit. The company did not pay her gratuity for the time she’d worked with them.

Radhika and Shahida are just two stories amongst hundreds of women workers in garment factories that face gender-based abuse. They also complain of the physical effects resulting from long work hours of relatively manual tasks: ulcers, piles and even varicose veins due to standing and hunching over machinery for longer than required hours. H&M’s Haryana supplier factories have an unpredictable fire and rehire system that they use to avoid paying benefits associated with seniority. Majority of these workers end up accepting the abuse because of a  fear of retaliation even in countries with strict whistleblower laws.

The Global Coalition behind the Reports

Recently, a coalition of worker-rights organizations banded together to address the issue of gender-based workplace violence, a matter whose discussion is long overdue.

A new research report titled “Gender Based Violence in the H&M Garment Supply Chains” was recently released. It covers the H&M supply chains in Cambodia, India, and Bangladesh. In this report, H&M is called out for the following labour incompliant activities:

  • Unauthorized subcontracting
  • Denial of freedom of association
  • Failure to require independent monitoring and gender cultures of impunity among perpetrators of violence
  • Preventing women from receiving accountability and relief

This report and others revealing the malpractices of other supply chains in Asia were compiled and presented by trade unions, worker rights and human rights organizations such as Society of Labour and Development, Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), Global Labour Justice, and CENTRAL Cambodia. The reports were released ahead of the International Labour Conference being held in Geneva. They come at a time when negotiations are underway at the International Labour Organisation to establish a global standard on women’s labor rights. These negotiations will also call for strong accountability for women who face violence, harassment, and abuse in supply chains across the world.

Response from the Companies in Question

Multinational Swedish clothing brand H&M is one of the companies that responded to the claims of gender-based violence against women workers. It stressed that all forms of abuse, violence and harassment go against what the organization stands for. According to the reports released, H&M supplier standards are limited to addressing only tier-1 companies and sub-contractors. It is not in its place to ensure that its non-direct partners in the supply chain also advocate for these standards. An H&M spokesperson reported that the H&M Group actively supports the development of women in the global textile industry.

Toothless Laws without Implementation and Compliance

In spite of laws that the governments have passed addressing this problem, neither the government nor employers work toward enforcing them.  Unionization rates are low with participation frequently repressed, and few women are given positions in unions to present the female worker’s point of view. Factory owners and managers turn a blind eye to violence against women on grounds of a culture that tolerates such abusive behavior, as well as a weak legal system among other reasons. The government plays a major role in the state of labor compliance in Asian garment factories and other businesses. In the reports released, concerns have been expressed about the Narendra Modi government in India, for example, and their proposed Industrial Code Bill that will only further aggravate accountability. The bill would weaken government inspections, dilute arbitration and settlement systems, and even create barriers for trade union registration which could only worsen the conditions for women workers in garment supplier factories.

Initiatives to Counter Gender-Based Violence, Abuse and Harassment

There is a lack of transparency in the garment and footwear industry that has left many employees in jeopardy. Therefore, addressing gender-based violence in the garment industry will require an all-hands-on-deck approach. Everything from improving social works conditions to creating legal frameworks and implementing them at the management level must be considered. Trade union leaders from all over the globe, together with governments and businesses, must come together at the International Labour Conference to create a global standard that protects the working rights and human rights of women workers across all business sectors including the garment and footwear industry.

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