The vast majority of garment workers – in some regions as many as 95% – are women. Women are found in the lowest-paid jobs in garment factories, and are much less likely than men to work in better-paid supervisory or managerial roles. Women are low-paid: they and their families stand to gain most from a living wage in the apparel sector, and in future blogs I will explore the reasons why.
Today I want to focus on factory violence and sexual harassment. Women’s poverty makes them especially vulnerable to the pervasive gender-based violence at work and in the communities in which they live.
A growing body of evidence is emerging that shows the links between low wages and a high risk of violence. And where women live on the bread line they are much less likely to take one option open to them to avoid factory floor harassment – moving to work in another factory. Poor workers cannot afford to risk a week without pay, so they are trapped. And in union-hostile factories there are often no sources of support or advice for women experiencing sexual harassment or violence.
Women’s accounts of sexual violence being used by supervisors as a control mechanism exist in all garment-producing countries around the world – from Bangladesh to Ethiopia, and Cambodia to Honduras.
Recent surveys by FWF and others have found that a shocking number − more than 60% − of women in major garment-producing countries like India and Bangladesh have experienced gender based violence, sexual harassment or abuse at work. In Indonesia more than eight out of ten female garment workers are affected by sexual harassment. The widespread lack of unions, functioning human resources and legal protections only increase the risks.
Women who don’t comply with requests for sexual favours or to work overtime risk being sacked or have their wages docked. On the production line, women face physical or verbal violence − often sexually explicit − from supervisors hoping to speed up production.
It’s not only at the factory where women workers face harassment. Women workers returning home late-night overtime shifts often commute through dangerous, poorly policed neighbourhoods, putting them at risk of sexual assault. Anecdotal evidence suggests that young women who live in factory dormitories are at risk from assault by security guards, and in one garment producing centre in India there have been high levels of suicides, some, it is said, provoked by pervasive gender based violence.
Sexual harassment and violence in factories is a classic example of what the ILO calls ‘unacceptable forms of work’. Gender-based violence attacks the personal integrity of women workers, as well as undermining her safety and security at work.
ILO Director-General Guy Ryder calls for an end to gender-based violence at work, describing it as “exceptionally dehumanising, pervasive and oppressive.” The ILO is considering putting Gender-Based Violence at Work on its international standard setting agenda – a new Convention that needs to be backed by MSIs, employers, and unions.
Low wages, harassment and violence intersect. A living wage is one step towards ensuring that women can live and work in decent conditions and have the ability to protect themselves and their families from harassment, violence and sexual assault.
Living wages will not eliminate all discrimination and workplace violence. But decent incomes buy women more ability to say no to dangerous and hostile working conditions. Living wages will not only make women less poor – they will also help to make them safer.
A future blog will cover the ground-breaking work by FWF to establish training and complaints’ procedures that challenge the culture of factory sexual violence and harassment. You can read more about the programme in the report Standing Firm Against Factory Floor Harassment.
Jo Morris serves as an advisor to FWF’s programme to prevent workplace violence against women.