11 May 2017
#MeToo in the garment industry
Dhaka – 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 it hits international markets.
M.’s job requires continuous oversight of the colleagues he supervises, to ensure that they meet stringent production standards. Despite his best efforts, mistakes sometimes 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. I also 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 #MeToo movement has echoes across the sector. Some 80 per cent of the 60 million workers employed in the global garment industry are women. The majority are under the age of 30, and many are migrants hailing from rural areas. Bangladesh is no exception.
Female workers 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, and that the problem is rife in the industry worldwide.
Enter Better Work
M. is one of over 400 factory managers, supervisors and workers who have now received sexual harassment prevention training from Better Work, an ILO flagship programme jointly managed by the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group. In line with the programme’s philosophy of creating a snowball effect of lasting improvements across its affiliated factories, more training participants are expected to follow.
“We started delivering sexual harassment prevention training in two pilot factories last year,” said Better Work’s Training Officer Shipra Chowdhury, who facilitated the workshops. “So far we’ve reached all the factories’ managers, half of the supervisors and one quarter of the workers. We are here to build capacity so that they can continue on their own, thereby making the training and its teachings sustainable.”
A shift in understanding – and behaviour
According to United Nations standards and national laws, any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct, gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behaviour of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or perceived to cause someone offence or humiliation falls within the definition of sexual harassment – be it from a man or a women.
In addition to the damaging psychological and physical effects sexual harassment can have on victims, Better Work’s research has shown that it can also negatively affect workplace communication and overall factory productivity.
But M. said that people in Bangladesh generally thought of the term as signifying 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 their sexual harassment prevention training.
“Men have mostly stopped calling, texting, and touching on the [factory] premises. They have 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 explained.
Better Work Bangladesh Enterprise Advisor Seema Robayeat agreed. “People in the factory have now realized that certain things they used to say or do were wrong. When they see a colleague misbehaving, they are ready to correct or report his or her behaviour. People now take these violations seriously.”
The Human Resources (HR) and Compliance General Manager at the company said they had always had a zero-tolerance policy concerning sexual harassment, but that Better Work’s efforts were really helping to spread awareness of guidelines that many workers and management members were unaware of.
“Almost everyone in the factory now knows that sexual harassment includes actions like constant looking, obscene phone calls, pornographic messages, direct propositions for sex at work and outside, or unwanted sexual attention, to name just a few of the common problems,” he said.
Challenging workplace and societal norms
Yet unwanted sexual attention is not confined to production lines. The manager explained that discussing widespread sexual harassment within the society at large 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 it is often the victims that are blamed rather than the perpetrators.
Factories can better tackle these issues using their administrative powers and by engaging workers in professional discussions, the manager said, before recounting one of the factory’s latest cases of harassment and the management’s reaction.
In March last year, a female worker reported that a colleague had been harassing her with numerous phone calls. The victim told the manager that this had been getting her into trouble with her husband, who had started wondering what the calls were all about. 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 on our premises.”
Despite this encounter, the manager was optimistic and said he had started noticing significant improvements following Better Work’s training. In the past few months, only a few cases of harassment were reported instead of the previous five to six a month.
The factory also established a six-person committee for the prevention of sexual harassment in which management and worker representatives could discuss cases reported to them and consult with the HR department concerning disciplinary measures. In most instances, these meetings would end with the perpetrator’s termination. Only cases that included serious molestation needed to be taken to the authorities.
Echoes of empowerment on the factory floor
Worker 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 company four months ago and learnt about the topic during her orientation programme.
“If ever I became 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 daughter about ways to defend herself from cases of abuse and be strong. If had a son, I would teach him to always respect and defend women, no matter what.”
*The worker’s initials have been used instead of his full name to safeguard his privacy.