Better Work’s Sexual Harassment Prevention training sparks changes in attitudes and behaviour
NARAYANGANJ, Bangladesh – F. M.* is a Bangladeshi supervisor, one of the 8,500 employees at a garment factory in the country’s central city of Narayanganj. M.’s task, since he took up the role nine months ago, has been to make sure his team in the factory’s quality check section catches any imperfections on clothing before they hit international markets.
M.’s job requires continuous attention to the colleagues he supervises, to ensure that they meet stringent production standards. Still, mistakes can occur, patience wears thin and boundaries blur.
“I used to touch my female colleagues on their shoulders or back to encourage them to work harder or highlight a mistake. Also, I addressed them using inappropriate, vulgar language on multiple occasions,” the 26-year-old said, looking away with embarrassment. “Now I am aware this is wrong; I stopped it completely and told the other supervisors to do the same. We all thought this was no big deal before.”
The worldwide garment industry is a workforce largely made up of women under the age of 30, mostly hailing from rural areas. Bangladesh is no exception. They often occupy low-status positions, especially in relation to line supervisors charged with assessing their performance. Studies show that this power structure makes supervisors more likely to be the initiators of harassment.
M. is now one of over 400 employees spanning factory managers, supervisors and workers who have received Better Work Bangladesh (BWB) sexual harassment prevention (SHP) training. In line with the programmes’s philosophy of creating a snowball effect of better practices across its affiliated factories, more programme participants are expected to follow.
“We started delivering SHP training in two pilot factories in August last year through December,” said BWB’s training officer Shipra Chowdhury, who conducted the seminars. “So far we’ve reached all the factories managers, half of the supervisors and one quarter of the workers. We are here to build capacities so that they can continue on their own, thus making the training and its teachings sustainable.”
According to UN standards and country laws, any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behaviour of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another – be it from a men or a women – falls under the sexual harassment definition.
In addition to the damaging psychological and physical effects sexual harassment can have on victims, it can negatively affect workplace communication and overall factory productivity.
But M. said people in Bangladesh generally thought of the term as assault involving sexual intercourse and were unaware that unwelcomed behaviour of a sexual nature also fell under the same umbrella.
This, he said, explained why the number of sexual harassment cases reported has fallen since Better Work started SHP training.
“Men have mostly stopped calling, texting, and touching in the [factory] premises, become more aware of the factory’s zero-tolerance policy regulating the matter and understand their job might be at stake should they be found guilty of an offence,” he said.
BWB Enterprise Advisor Seema Robayeat agreed.
“People in the factory have now realized that certain things they used to say or do when interacting with others were wrong. When seeing a colleague misbehaving, they would now be ready to correct or report his/her faulty behaviour. People now take these violations seriously.”
The Human Resources and Compliance General Manager at the company said they had always had a zero-tolerance policy concerning sexual harassment, but that BWB’s work was really helping to spread awareness of guidelines many workers and management members were unaware of.
“Almost everyone in the factory now knows sexual harassment includes actions like constant looking, obscene phone calls, pornographic messages, direct propositions for sex at work or outside, and unwanted sexual attention, to name just a few,” he said.
But unwanted sexual attention is not confined to production lines.
The manager said discussing widespread sexual harassment within the country’s society was still extremely difficult due to the shame associated with the concept. He added that family members, friends and neighbours often discourage reporting abuses to police because victims are often blamed rather than perpetrators.
Factories can better tackle these issues using their administrative powers and capabilities of engaging workers in discussions and communicating professionally, the manager said, before recounting one of the factory’s latest cases of harassment and the management’s reaction.
Earlier in March, a female worker reported a colleague had been harassing her with numerous phone calls. The victim told the manager this was getting her into trouble with her husband, who had started wondering about the reasons for these calls. The manager summoned the harasser, who confessed his love and said he would continue tormenting her and didn’t care whether she had previously rejected him or was married.
“I fired him on the spot,” he said. “We don’t tolerate this inside our premises.”
Still, the manager was optimistic and said he had started noticing large improvements following BWB’s training. In the past few months, only a few cases were reported instead of the previous five to six a month.
Last September, the factory also established a six-person committee for the prevention of sexual harassment in which members of the management and participation committee representatives could discuss reported cases and consult with the HR department concerning disciplinary measures. In most cases, these meetings would end with the perpetrator’s termination.
Only cases which included serious molestation were taken to authorities.
Helper Joni A. was aware of the different forms of sexual harassment when asked about them on the factory floor and said she was ready to take action if she became a recipient of unwanted attention.
The young mother said she joined the factory some four months ago and learnt about it during the initial orientation programme.
“If I become a victim of sexual harassment or see this happening to someone around me, I would immediately inform the HR department,” she said, clenching her fists on her lap. “When she grows up, I will teach my three-year-old daughter about ways to defend herself from cases of abuse and become strong. If had a son, I would teach him to always respect and defend women, no matter what.”
Better Work has decreased sexual harassment concerns in most countries where the training programme is active. The dominant trend is improvement over time. Even after considering external factors, the programme’s services account for a significant share of the reduction in sexual harassment concerns.
Over the course of a factory’s cooperation with Better Work, workers who reported their concerns about sexual harassment have decreased and were more likely to take cases to a trade union representative. This suggests that workers are becoming more aware of their rights and are increasingly confident about seeking help to address the issue.
*The worker’s initials have been used instead of his full name to safeguard his privacy.