Ending violence in the workplace

5 Jun 2018

5 June 2018

This article, by Better Work senior research policy specialist Arianna Rossi,  was originally published in World of Work, the International Labour Organization’s Annual publication on major issues under consideration by the Governing Body, 2017.  

Violence in the workplace is a violation of fundamental human rights, and a common occurrence in the garment industry. In high-pressure environments, workers can be subjected to bullying, verbal and physical abuse, as a means to intimidate or, perversely, motivate them to reach production targets.

One prevalent form of violence at work in the export-oriented garment industry is sexual harassment. The industry is largely comprised of women workers under the age of 30, many of whom migrate from rural areas or from abroad for their first formal job. They often occupy a position of low power in factories, especially in relation to a line supervisor who assesses their performance. Supervisors can use their position to sexually harass them, and disempowered workers may interpret such conduct as a condition of their employment or promotion. In addition to the damaging psychological and physical effects sexual harassment can have on victims, it can negatively affect workplace communication and overall productivity.

The Better Work programme, a partnership between the ILO and the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, engages with employers and workers throughout the garment industry to address poor conditions, including violence, in the workplace. The programme provides several insights into the dynamics and ways to combat violence at work.

Better Work offers three interlocking services at the factory-level. Its locally recruited staff, or Enterprise Advisors, are trained extensively on how to use unannounced compliance assessments to detect violations of international labour standards and national labour law. Enterprise Advisors also deliver Better Work’s advisory services. They are trained to assist in establishing worker-management dialogue mechanisms designed to address compliance violations and ensure continuous improvement. The programme also offers specialized training, including topics such as the skills needed to become a successful line supervisor in a factory.

Better Work compliance assessments cover issues related to the ILO’s core labour standards addressing discrimination at work. They are designed to detect gender-based discrimination, and specifically whether sexual harassment is present in the workplace. They also attempt to discern if workers are being bullied, verbally abused, or subjected to other humiliating and violent treatment.


Many women may feel uncomfortable discussing sexual harassment at work in face-to-face interviews. Researchers led by an interdisciplinary team from Tufts University, designed confidential worker surveys, which are delivered on tablet computers with Audio ComputerAssisted Self-Interviews (ACASI) software.

The survey programme included a tutorial to assist workers unfamiliar with how to manipulate a cursor onscreen. The survey script and questions were translated and read out in the local language, complemented in some cases with images to help low literacy workers. In this way, the researchers ensured workers felt maximum comfort and anonymity, in sharing their concerns about or experience of sensitive topics such as workplace violence. This method also shielded them from the risk of being overheard by supervisors or managers while sharing their responses.

Results from the survey related to workplace violence showcase how researchers successfully provided a platform for workers to express concerns on issues at work that proved difficult to detect during compliance assessments.

Compliance assessments alone rarely detect definitively that sexual harassment existed in the workplace, when workers responded directly through Better Work’s impact assessment methodology. However, the magnitude of the problem was better understood. Across several country contexts, the issue of sexual harassment was identified as a significant concern.

Based on workers’ responses, researchers demonstrated that the remuneration system of workers and line supervisors plays a role in the likelihood of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is most common in factories where workers are strongly incentivized to work (i.e. they are paid ‘by the piece’), while supervisors have weaker incentives (i.e. they are paid a fixed salary). When a factory’s pay scheme is misaligned, supervisors lack the incentive to improve the overall efficiency of their production line. In addition, supervisors who are charged with monitoring individual worker productivity and determining bonuses, may exercise their power over workers by forcing them into sexual encounters.

Because of the important insights provided by Better Work’s impact assessment surveys on workers’ sexual harassment concerns, and the difficulty in identifying evidence to support non-compliance during factory  assessments, the programme decided to roll-out in factories an approach to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, regardless of their non-compliance findings on the issue. In 2012, Better Work developed a template factory toolkit consisting of a model policy on harassment, an awareness raising poster, a training brochure and a quick reference ‘do’s and don’ts’ to display on the factory floor. Tools are adapted to the specific cultural context in which Better Work countries operate, after focus group discussions with industry stakeholders, as well as collaborations with local NGOs. A training module on sexual harassment prevention, targeting general managers, middle management, line supervisors and workers, was also developed. Better Work Jordan was the first country programme to adapt the toolkit, and to implement the training in factories in 2013.

Through their extensive longitudinal analysis, impact assessment researchers have identified a reduction in concerns about sexual harassment attributable to Better Work’s efforts. Even after taking into account external factors, the programme’s services account for a significant share of a reduction in sexual harassment concerns.

The impact of Better Work is most evident in Jordan, where the programme reduced the probability of workers being concerned with sexual harassment by 18 percentage points by the sixth year of participation in Better Work. While the average level of sexual harassment concern reported per factory is higher in Indonesia than in Jordan, there is evidence to suggest that workers are more comfortable in doing something about their concerns. This includes seeking help from their trade union representative or from human resources, which suggests workers are becoming more aware of their rights, and are increasingly confident about seeking help to address the issue.

In Nicaragua, despite the small number of factories evaluated, there is evidence that when managers are aware of the problem, worker concerns decline by 29 percentage points. It is arguable that manager awareness could translate to broader organizational awareness, such as the establishment of anti-harassment policies. The Tufts analysis suggests that change is driven by a combination of Better Work interventions, starting with the compliance assessment, the introduction of antisexual harassment policies, and the provision of targeted training services.

Despite falling levels of concern, sexual harassment remains a pressing problem for workers in many factories. This is exemplified by the high percentage of workers who did not want to answer the question on impact assessment surveys about sexual harassment, suggesting continued reticence to report concerns about the issue.

Understanding the magnitude of the problem of violence at work is an important first step to addressing its root causes. Using the experience and analysis of data gathered through programmes like Better Work, can help in this endeavour and support efforts to ensure workplaces free of violence.

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