In Haiti, Better Work and its partners are tackling sexual harassment on the factory floor, raising awareness and training the workforce on ways to prevent it.
Port-au-Prince, HAITI – Hundreds of women led by Haiti’s Comité Intersyndical des Femmes (Inter-Union Committee of Women) marched in Port-au-Prince on the national Women’s Movement Day in April last year to raise awareness about violence and sexual harassment at the workplace, in particular across local factories.
A month before the walk, the committee joined forces with Better Work Haiti (BWH), to hold a one-day International Women’s Day programme to discuss abusive practises in the workplace.
Offering employment to tens of millions worldwide, the garment sector is a major export opportunity for developing countries. However, a study conducted by Tufts University found the global apparel industry is often plagued by poor working conditions, including verbal and sexual harassment.
In some cases, the researchers found workers in many garment producing countries see unwelcome sexual contacts as an unwritten condition of employment, even a requirement for promotion. In addition to the damaging psychological and physical effects sexual harassment has on victims, it can negatively affect workplace communication and overall factory productivity.
One-third of garment workers affected
In Haiti, the apparel sector employs around 50, 000 workers. In 2018, export revenues from the textile and garment industry accounted for around 90 per cent of national export earnings and ten per cent of national GDP.
However, according to the study by Tufts University, at the onset of Better Work Haiti around one-in-three garment workers have reported problems with sexual harassment in Haitian factories. Similar figures emerged from the sector in Jordan and Nicaragua, with higher rates still in certain Asian countries.
“The research shows that sexual harassment is widespread across the sector,” says Claudine Francois, BWH Programme Manager. “This is why we decided to take more action to address this, as part of our newly launched five-year strategy.”
Since its establishment in 2009, BWH and its partners have supported workers’ complaints and worked with factories to set up remediation policies. Around 1,000 workers, supervisors, and managers have received training on identifying and remedying sexual harassment in the workplace as of 2018. This helps people working in the sector understand the nature of sexual harassment, something they admit they have trouble recognizing.
“Women represent the majority of the garment workers and the basis of the household economy. They need their salaries to take care of their families,” says Marie Louise Lebrun, Deputy Secretary General of the Inter-Union Committee of Women, adding that her group and BWH are launching a series of sexual harassment prevention trainings for workers, supervisors and managers.
Harassment can start as early as recruitment and, once inside the factories, workers can face additional unwanted behaviours. Local women even have a phrase for this hidden practice: “Sipèvisè ap ba nou check, Bondye pote nou sekou!” (“Supervisors are checking us out, Lord help us!”).
In their global study, researchers at Tufts University identify line supervisors as the most likely perpetrators because of the power they have over workers.
“Sexual harassment in factories is a source of trauma, stigma, shame and accusations from colleagues,” Lebrun says. “Victims don’t want to talk about it, amid fears of losing their jobs.”
Shame and little awareness
Shame and limited awareness among women of their rights can make it easier for offenders to get away with abuse. Also, very few report abuses because of fears of losing their job, coupled with social norms that blame victims. Many Haitians associate sexual harassment solely with an assault involving sexual intercourse.
According to the United Nations, any “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” falls under this definition. This can include sexual looks or gestures, teasing, jokes, remarks, pressure for a date, hugs or massages, among other actions.
“The vast majority of garment factories in Haiti have sexual harassment policies,” says Cynthia Raymond, BWH Enterprise Advisor. “But not all of them have clear disciplinary measures in place for when cases arise.”
Recently BWH worked on the case of a worker who accused her line supervisor of using vulgar language and asking her out, allegations her colleagues confirmed.
With Better Work’s coaching, the factory reviewed its sexual harassment policy and began training all new recruits about the company policy and practice for recognizing and dealing with harassment. Also, training sessions have been organized for workers, supervisors, and labour inspectors to raise awareness on prevention throughout the year.
More factories in Haiti have started to ask for the implementation of the complete Better Work sexual harassment prevention training package, which targets workers, supervisors and managers in separate fora and provides tools for the business to both prevent and remedy harassment
“There’s more to be done, and the commitment of everyone – factories, brands and the government – is key. But change is on its way,” says Raymond. “Workers are often thankful at the end of a supervisors’ training cycle. They come to us and say ‘Hey, you know? Supervisors are much more respectful now’.”