31 October 2022, MANAGUA – Ivania del Carmen Mercado López is an accessories warehouse assistant at Hansae International, S.A textile company in the outskirts of Nicaragua’s capital city.
She has been working there for the past eight years and recently joined the company’s newly established committee for the prevention of sexual harassment (POSH).
“Once you are made more aware of the subject of sexual harassment, you change your mentality,” she says. “Today, I know what harassment is. I stopped thinking that only women suffer from it. Men and members of the LGBTQ community are just as likely to face daily harassment, be it in the factory or outside its premises.”
Hansae group and its 4,170-worker branches in Nicaragua have committed to tackling harassment across the factory floor. With the help of Better Work and following its flagship POSH programme, the group has established channels through which workers can report sexual harassment cases, enabling them to more safely denounce their harassers. The group is working to guarantee workers a secure work environment.
Sexual harassment is unfortunately a relatively common occurrence across clothing plants worldwide, and Nicaragua’s factories are not an exception. Workplaces are frequently characterized by unequal power relations among staff, research shows. Often, the industry is subject to business pressures – such as short turnaround times for garment production – meaning workers can be subjected to bullying and verbal and physical abuse to intimidate, or even motivate, them to reach production targets.
Violence and harassment in the world of work have only been recently defined in international norms through the ILO Convention No. 190 (“C190”) —the first international convention to recognize the universal right to a world of work free from violence and harassment.
Such abuses include a vast range of unacceptable behaviours and practices, or threats thereof, that aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm. This includes gender-based violence and harassment. Defining the range of behaviours that can be recognized as sexual harassment has proven to be an important step toward eradicating the problem. Part of POSH’s methodology is helping participants understand the myriad ways in which violence and harassment can manifest.
Mildred Michel Castillo Gutierrez works as a social compliance manager in one of Hansae`s factories.
Castillo Gutierrez says Better Work has played a decisive role in the company’s zero-tolerance policy concerning the matter. The programme advised Hansae throughout the implementation of the six-month long, holistic POSH intervention. It consists of a diagnostic to identify the situation and systems in place in the factory at the beginning of the learning journey, a training on the subject with a Training of Trainer (TOT) element ; ongoing advisory services and coaching as harassment prevention training is rolled out by the factory itself to all employees; and sustainability planning for the future.
Castillo Gutierrez also says that “Although we are approaching it from an occupational point of view, we must look at the big picture and become agents of change to guarantee that these unacceptable practices also stop at home, on the streets and in our culture.”
Today, the 17 trained factory trainers are rolling out the training to the entire workforce. The factory has created a strong plan, beginning with the development of the POSH committee. The committee created a clear public identity within the factory and has taken initiatives like creating murals to inform factory workers, making themselves available for counsel and advice, overseeing training, and conducting surveys. The committee is in the process of training 100 per cent of the workers on the four modules.
“All workers must be aware of Hansae International, S.A. policy and procedures established for the prevention of sexual harassment,” says Castillo Gutierrez . “They must know that here, measures are taken to prevent and address it.”
Thanks to the programme, workers are now trained in reporting abuses, recognizing sexual harassment and the different forms in which it manifests, and the impact on the victims, perpetrators and possible bystanders.
“This is of great importance, as the fundamental causes of sexual harassment are power relations and gender inequality. For this reason, the promotion and achievement of a respectful workplace characterised by gender equality are crucial,” Castillo Gutierrez says.
Cutting Assistant Jorge Luis Peña Suazo, is also a member of the factory’s committee for the prevention of sexual harassment. He raises awareness on the issue and supports all victims, regardless of their rank in the company.
According to Peña Suazo, although things have changed in his factory, the problem is widespread across society, making it harder to tackle.
“Sexual harassment affects many of us in Nicaragua. People utter explicit sexual remarks in the streets that are wrongly thought of as ‘compliments.’ Groping and lewd looks are also common. People tolerate and consider such obscene greetings as normal.”
Peña Suazo is taking an approach that attempts to tackle this as a cultural problem. Talking about and addressing such behaviour in the workplace are initial and pivotal steps to break with a toxic tradition, he says. Eventually, he and others hope the positive repercussions echo outside of the factory and into the community.
Human Resources Manager Darling Maria Flores Maltese, is proud of the steps taken by her company, believing that if each factory made a commitment to fighting harassment, the result would be a productive, respectful and safe work environment for all the sector’s workers.
“Today, female workers say they have started feeling more secure and have become more confident in denouncing harassment cases,” said Flores Maltese. “The fact that the workforce is openly speaking about it is a sign that the message has been well received.”
Jessica Adela García, a Sewing Assistant is in awe of the intervention: “The training provided by the factory has been great, both for the staff and for management. It has helped us to understand the fine lines to abuse and harassment. Also, we now have a very clear understanding of how to report any cases. Yet, the impact goes even beyond the workplace. We are sharing the information back home and this is contributing to change in our families and communities.”
The Audit Compliance Officer Erick Perez, a member of the POSH Committeee, indicated that the training has changed his mind: “After the sexual harassment prevention training that Better Work gave us and those that we, as a POSH committee, have replicated, men are more aware that some of our actions can be perceived as sexual harassment against women, so now we have to analyse our actions and attitudes”.
Suppliers like Hansae and buyers like GAP Inc. are taking steps to address this issue from a cultural perspective, with holistic interventions like POSH training. This offers a model for how other factories and brands can take an active role in improving the work environment – and by extension, the lives – of workers.