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Sexual harassment prevention: How Better Work is taking the message of the new ILO Convention on violence and harassment to the garment industry

26 Jun 2019

Sexual harassment prevention: How Better Work is taking the message of the new ILO Convention on violence and harassment to the garment industry

The ILO’s recently adopted convention to combat violence and harassment in the workplace will bolster Better Work’s strategy to prevent sexual harassment.

GENEVA – In a historic moment on June 21, the International Labour Organization adopted the Violence and Harassment Convention 2019, its first convention since 2011 and one with far reaching consequences for workers around the globe.

The Convention, along with its accompanying Recommendations, was adopted “with a view to preventing and eliminating violence and harassment in the world of work.”  As such, it closes a gap in workplace protection for millions of workers globally by recognizing that violence and harassment is a violation of human rights, incompatible with decent working conditions.

The text calls upon governments to “adopt laws and regulations to define and prohibit violence and harassment in the world of work, including gender-based violence and harassment.”

 ‘Of crucial significance’ for garment workers

Sexual harassment is particularly pronounced in the garment industry, given that some 80 percent of workers are female, most are young and many are migrants, often creating a notable power distances between line workers and their supervisors as well as with those placing orders at the factory.

“This new convention is of crucial significance to our sector. Both our research and on-the-ground experience testify to the fact that workers are often vulnerable to violence and harassment in the workplace, as they travel to and from work, and even in their homes and communities”, said Roopa Nair, Better Work’s Head of Head of Operations, Quality, and Innovation. “The new ILO Convention provides a clear framework for action and an opportunity to shape a future of work based on dignity and respect.”

The Better Work experience

As Better Work’s recent paper, Sexual harassment at work: Insights from the global garment industry, shows, sexual harassment is commonly under-reported in the apparel sector, yet there is strong evidence to demonstrate that it is a serious problem for workers in many factories. In one Better Work survey in Indonesia, for example, eight out of ten workers stated that sexual harassment was a concern to them or their colleagues.

Yet, despite the significance of the challenge, the Better Work study also brings good news. By taking concrete measures to address sexual harassment, such as putting into place adequate systems to manage and address complaints, training and promoting female supervisors, and facilitating meaningful worker-management dialogue with fairly-elected representatives, the problem can be reduced. In Jordan, for example, there was an 18 per cent reduction in concerns with sexual harassment following Better Work interventions.

Furthermore, the paper shows, addressing such issues can lead to business benefits, with a knock-on improvement in firm productivity when worker wellbeing increases and sexual harassment decreases.

The way forward

These findings – along with the landmark new ILO Convention – present a key opportunity for apparel workers and an entry point for those looking to reduce the incidence and harm of sexual harassment in the garment and other industries.

The paper outlines Better Work’s collaborations with partners across all of its country programmes to scale impact to date. This includes the Respectful Workplace Programme which provides practical tools for workers and managers to identify, address and prevent sexual harassment on the factory floor.

Alongside this factory-level work, collaborating with governments and international brands is also at the heart of Better Work’s approach. Training for Jordanian labour inspectors has included tools to detect and investigate sexual harassment, for example, while changes to Vietnam’s labour law to mandate Better Work-inspired worker-management committees are likely to have strengthened factory communications – a proven factor in reducing sexual harassment.

“It’s time to seize the moment and scale up what we know works,” says Nair. “The new international standards to combat violence and harassment have given new impetus to our engagement with brands, unions, governments and employers, as well as to our hands-on work at the factory level. With the full buy-in of all partners, the positive impact could be enormous – for workers and businesses alike.

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