A survey on GBV at the workplace in Bangladesh garment factories

Women’s Safety at Work the widespread problem of gender-based violence (GBV) in garment factories. Fair Wear Foundation has worked together with brands and factories to get solid information on the extent and scope of the problem in different countries, as well as on how much workers know about their rights.

For example, in 2012 and 2013, FWF conducted a survey among garment workers at 35 factories. The 658 workers that were interviewed, were asked about their awareness of GBV and labour rights among women workers and factory managers. The survey focused on four types of violence at work:

  • Verbal abuse: including name-calling, shouting, yelling, etc.
  • Physical abuse: slapping, kicking, pinching, pulling by the hair, pushing, hitting with fabric or garment pieces, etc.
  • Psychological abuse: forbidding going to the toilet or leaving the factory, threatening to terminate contract, threatening to send to jail, refusing to give work, public humiliation, etc.
  • Sexual harassment/sexual assault: proposing to have sex, attempt to have sex forcefully, rape, etc.

Verbal abuse

At least 75% of the workers interviewed said that they had experienced verbal abuse. This includes name-calling, shouting, or yelling.

“The garment industry is a place of dirty language and abuse. Those who have sinned a lot come here for penance”

“A Hindu woman works with me as a helper. She is kind of simple. Often the supervisor says to her ‘you malawn‘s child, you child of devil, why sitting idle, you don’t like to work!'”

The word malawn, which means swine is used to single out non-Muslims, and emphasise their differences in belief.

Physical and psychological abuse

Physical abuse, like slapping, kicking, pinching, hair-pulling, pushing, hitting with fabric or garment pieces, was less common, but no less grave. About 20% of workers said they had experience with such actions. And 30% said they had experienced forms of psychological abuse.

The most common perpetrators were floor-level managers, such as line chiefs and supervisors. Workers commented for example that:

“Supervisors continuously bully us. They think shouting at us gets more work done” or “This is normal behaviour of the supervisor or the line chief, to abuse or scold the girls”.

This often has to do with pressures to meet production goals:

“We are kept under excessive pressure. If our ability is (to make) 50 pieces, we are given a production target of 70 pieces. In such situations if the production target is not met, the supervisor will say ‘swine, why is your production so low? If you cannot work, don’t come tomorrow.'”

And verbal and physical abuse often go together.

“Here the factory is run by supervisors and line chief. They throw workers out of the gate pushing their neck every now and then.”

“(We faced the) threat of termination every moment. We are not allowed to drink water, because we will need to use the washroom afterwards.”

And workers consider it part of the job, although it should not be so

“To work in garments means being abused every moment. No one talks without abusing”.

The hidden abuse: sexual assault

Only one of the respondents mentioned sexual assault, but refused to give details of her story. The fact that sexual assault is not reported does not mean that it does not exist. Workers can be reluctant to discuss sexual assault for many reasons.

Other kinds of violence happen to everyone in the factories, and workers talk to each other all the time. It is a common issue, and not as sensitive. But sexual assault usually happens in private and stigma towards the victim can be huge. So women prefer to hide it if it happens. In Bangladesh, women are not used to talk about sexual harassment or gender equality. Many women are even reluctant to use the word ‘sex’.

Through the pilot of setting up anti-harassment committees and awareness training on GBV, FWF hopes to encourage women to report sexual harassment. Only when women are empowered to report abuses of any kind will it be possible to reduce violence in the workplace.

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