Human Rights Watch appeals to the fashion industry to counter sexual intimidation of women in clothing factories in Asia, after a release of a report that paints a horrible picture of working conditions.
59 "lawless" countries
HRW says that sexual intimidation is commonplace in clothing factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India and Pakistan, where many international fashion brands have their apparel manufactured. 59 countries in the world have no laws at all against sexual intimidation at work, but even where such regulations do exist (like in Pakistan and India), many employees are not (fully) aware of their rights, or they are afraid of retaliations.
“Women fear retaliation both at the factory and at home," the human rights watchdog writes. "Being unmarried and from conservative families, the women are dependent on their families’ permission to work in the factories. If the families learn of the harassment they endure, they risk being told not to work outside the home"
Sexual intimidation comes in many forms, such as rude remarks, jokes, winks, propositions, touching and insults. "Verbal abuse is common in factories across different countries," the report continues. "Workers from different countries have described being humiliated with insults". Those are often expressed when female workers make requests regarding their sanitation or rest needs during menstrual cycles.
Sometimes, sexual harassment even extends beyond the workplace. A female textile worker in India who is cited in the report, said her supervisor called her several times after work hours to request sexual favours. In return, he promised that he would give her lighter work and more breaks. When she complained about this to the Human Resources Department, they trivialised the issue and told her she would have to learn how to deal with it.
HRW is appealing to the fashion industry to support a new convention of the International Labour Organisation that will deal with violence and intimidation at work. "Governments and businesses leaders committed to workplace equality should back those workers’ call. They should vote for a binding ILO convention in 2019 when it is debated at the International Labor Conference in Geneva. That, in turn, will pave the way for rights groups around the world to champion overdue legal reforms or push for better enforcement of existing laws."
In addition, the organisation's advice to fashion labels is to stop depending on social audits, since those are not equipped to detect or deal with sexual intimidation at work. It would be better to interview employees outside of the workplace to ensure complete confidentiality. As brands and factories often pay only a limited amount of money for such audits however, they usually only have brief group interviews on location. It is quite unlikely that workers will reveal the truth when their managers know exactly who is being interviewed. People are also less likely to discuss sensitive issues in a group, especially if the group consists of both men and women.
HRW concludes the report with five concrete recommendations for global fashion companies:
Publically endorse an ILO convention to tackle violence and intimidation at work
Publish the general list of factories they work with
Periodically investigate gender-related violence and intimidation at work in every country where apparel is manufactured
Ask and map out whether the factory where they order has any sister companies that are property of the same parent company
Take steps to investigate the company's buying practices to avoid the risk of abuse in the supply chain