‘Let’s give a voice to the women who make our clothes'

‘We need to support women workers in garment factories to raise their voices, so the industry can detect and tackle harassment’, says our associate director Margreet Vrieling on the eve of International Women’s Day.

More and more consumers are becoming aware of unfair working conditions in the fashion industry, like child labour and low wages. But there are other, less-known negative working practices that have become normalised, such as gender-based harassment and violence in garment factories. ‘Harassment and discrimination can be hard to spot on the factory floor’, shares Margreet. ‘But that doesn’t mean they don’t occur. We need to become more aware of this and address it as proactively as possible.’

Sexual harassment and violence against women are widespread problems in the garment industry, where women make up about 80 percent of the workforce. In many garment factories, production pressure is high, and yelling—often sexually explicit—is common practice. Women garment workers are often young, poor and living in a society dominated by strong gender hierarchies.  A disturbingly high percentage of garment workers report verbal and physical abuse as well as sexual harassment, including assault and rape.

Preventing and solving cases of harassment in garment factories requires a joint approach. Vrieling: ‘Factory managers, garment brands and NGOs such as ours all need to take responsibility to ensure that workplaces are free from harassment. Brands need to know that this is happening and act on it; our auditors need to be able to spot it; everyone who buys clothes should be aware of it.’

Gender stereotypes
For sustainable solutions, women workers need to be supported in voicing their complaints. ‘Women need to feel safe enough to talk about harassment and feel supported by factory management’, explains Vrieling. ‘By lending our voices and platforms to their fight, these workers can speak out against the injustices they face every day. Brands and factories must be held accountable for responding to these injustices.’

As a way of addressing gender-based violence, FWF and its member brands have established anti-harassment committees in factories in Bangladesh and India. Workers in these factories are slowly starting to speak out and work towards solutions. Also in India, FWF ran a supervisor training programme. By training women workers to become supervisors, the programme aimed to reduce economic discrimination and change gender stereotypes. Male supervisors were trained to become more aware of gender matters and violence-free conflict solving methods.

8 March celebration
On 8 March, FWF together with Dutch garment brands, the Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garment and Textiles, Plan Nederland, and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs will celebrate International Women’s Day in The Hague. Dutch designer Monique Collignon, UN Youth Ambassador Hajar Yagkoubi and SER representative Jef Wintermans will speak during the event.