A new study has shown that women in Vietnamese garment factories are systematically being sexually harassed and abused. A highly important factor in this situation are the working conditions in the factories.
The investigation was done by two organisations. Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) and Care International. They interviewed 763 women from the clothing industry in three Vietnamese provinces. 43 percent of women testified that they had been the victim of some kind of violence in the past year, in the form of threats, groping, hitting and even rape. "There’s a significant culture of silence around this," said the report's author, Dr. Jane Pillinger. "We know from feedback that some women wouldn’t answer the questions in the interviews, perhaps because they feared their responses would somehow get back to their employers or husbands".
This is the first investigation to make the connection between the (sexual) violence in the garment factories and the specific working conditions of the fast fashion industry. It's not unusual to see overtime, low wages, long working hours and unrealistic production targets demanded by famous brands. Some workers have testified to 90 hours of overtime per month on top of their long 12-hour work days in peak periods. The investigation discovered a high correlation between overtime and abuse in the work environment. Violence and intimidation occurred 3.8 times more often during high season than the rest of the year.
The study also concluded that sexual violence and intimidation negatively influence both productivity and worker retention. A quarter of the women who had been the victim of violence and intimidation also said they were having physical health problems. Half were worried, stressed or anxious. "We were shocked by the damaging effect it had," says Annabel Meurs, Vietnam country manager of the FWF. "Violence and bullying influences productivity, competitive ability and the company's reputation, as well as the integrity, health and well-being of women. It sounds simple but most clothing brands are unaware of the large influence they have in factories."
Adapted production strategy
Marco Huenh, head of CSR at German brand Deuter, says the company has reviewed its contracts with Vietnamese factories in 2015 after finding out about the massive overtime. "We know that excessive overtime is a factor that can increase the presence of sexual harassment or verbal abuse of women workers on the production line. Workers who experience verbal abuse require almost one additional hour per day to reach their daily targets, which also reduces production."
"To remove the trigger of production stress – one of the most common triggers for harassment – Deuter made radical changes to its purchase and ordering practice and developed a strong, stable partnership with our Vietnam supplier. As a result, we have radically reduced excessive overtime. Deuter has not had any complaints of harassment and our new production strategy has definitely reduced risks. It is just one reason why workers stay working in our factories for much longer than is usual in the Vietnam garment industry."