For many women in the Ready Made Garment (RMG) industry, harassment is an everyday occurrence. The problem is systemic – about 60 percent of women have reported some form of harassment or violence – from forced labour, to verbal and physical abuse and sexual harassment. In more recent times, workplace violence against women has been increasingly recognised as an issue, and efforts have been made towards prevention and action to combat the problem. For example, countries like Bangladesh and India, have incorporated anti-harassment policies as part of their labour regulation frameworks.
Policies that address harassment in the workplace give women equal rights under the law and aim to create a safe and secure environment in educational institutions and the workplace. However, despite the adoption of directives, there is lack of effective implementation of the legislation. The problem is further complicated by the competitive nature of the global textile market, which tends to drive prices, and workers’ wages, down. Also, there are systemic norms that consistently devalue women’s experiences.
In 2011, FWF and local partner NGOs in Bangladesh and India launched a program to integrate these laws in garment factories. The programme, which piloted new workplace procedures, was designed to prevent and respond to forms of workplace violence including verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment, forced labour and sexual assault.This was done through the establishment of anti-harassment committees (AHC) in garment factories, and the development of anti-harassment committees.
What do AHCs do?
AHCs are made up of elected workers who can file grievances on behalf of workers who have experienced harassment or have concerns about safety. They work with factory management to ensure that the cases are resolved appropriately. The law in India and Bangladesh requires that factories create policies to address grievances and prevent and respond to workplace harassment, and these govern the work of AHC. Whenever needed, NGOs, trade unions, and local police force agencies provide support, counselling and enforcement.
Challenges to the work of AHCs
Establishing AHCs is still a difficult task. Harassment is generally a hidden crime, especially if it has a sexual component. Perceptions of harassment will vary widely among the management staff, making it difficult to determine how frequent and to what degree harassment is occurring. Auditors will hear anecdotal accounts of harassment, but cannot get the evidence necessary to act on it. And so, brands and factory management often say that gender-based discrimination does not exist in their factory.
Women workers are hesitant to speak up: the behaviour in the factory mirrors that of society, so frequently they consider harassment a normal behaviour. Furthermore, they do not want to call attention to themselves; they fear being further marginalised as trouble-makers or as willing participants of the abuse. Speaking up can risk their reputation and possibly damage their marriage prospects.
Elected members of AHCs face extra pressure, harassment, and job discrimination for actively participating in the committees. In spite of their training, they often lack experience in conflict resolution, and the concept of an AHC is new to them. Many of the women are illiterate, and it is not easy for them to obtain information about the procedures, the laws and their rights. Some women are fired after signing up to work with an AHC, but some others are pressured to resign by their peers and factory management.
Despite these challenges, FWF has seen many successes from the AHCs. Initially the committees only reported minor issues, but as trust in the system grew, more serious issues were reported. Many factories have become receptive to the training programs and implementation of the committee. Worker surveys showed increased confidence is coming forward with their complaints and understood that it was their right to be free from workplace harassment. There is still a long road ahead, but these early steps show much promise.