Sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence are rampant in garment factories in Bangladesh and throughout the textile production and retail industry in South Africa, according to two recently published Solidarity Center reports. The sample surveys are among a broad spectrum of outreach by Solidarity Center partners who also are addressing gender inequities through awareness efforts among informal economy workers and workers with disabilities in Nigeria, in labor rights and career workshops in Armenia and Georgia, and among app-based drivers in multiple countries.
In addressing the root causes of GBVH in the world of work, a priority for the Solidarity Center, workers and civil society join together to advocate collectively beyond the workplace to push for policy and legal reform, expanding democracy.
November 25 marks the start of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an annual international campaign in which union activists stand in solidarity with women’s rights activists to highlight the prevalence of GBVH at the workplace and to support feminist movements around the world in calling for a world free from GBVH. The campaign culminates on December 10, Human Rights Day.
As activists mobilize worldwide, here’s a snapshot of how Solidarity Center and its partners are moving forward efforts to end GBVH at the workplace and achieve decent, inclusive work for all.
Garment Industry: Rife with GBVH
Because so little data exists on the prevalence of GBVH at workplaces, union activists and their allies in Bangladesh and South Africa sought to document workers’ experiences at garment factories and clothing outlets. Solidarity Center partners previously conducted similar studies in Cambodia, Indonesia and Nigeria.
In South Africa, 98 percent of the 117 workers surveyed said they had experienced one or more forms of GBVH at work. The Bangladesh survey found severe outcomes for workers who experienced GBVH at work, with 89 percent saying they “broke down mentally” and 45 percent reporting leaving their jobs temporarily and/or losing pay. The survey involved 120 workers in 103 garment factories and was conducted by 21 activists from grassroots and worker organizations.
In many cases, workers’ jobs and wages were at risk if they did not agree to sex with employers or managers. In Bangladesh, 57 percent of survey participants said they lost their jobs because they refused such overtures. As one survey participant in South Africa said:
“My manager called me to his office and said that if I want to extend my hours of work, I must go out with him. He kept on asking, even forcefully and aggressively … I heard from other women workers that he had also asked them.” Survey participants were not identified for their safety.
Both surveys were conducted through participatory action research, rooted in collaboration, education, developing skills and centered on a “Do No Harm” ethos to avoid re-traumatizing interviewees. Through worker-driven strategies to address and prevent GBVH in the garment sector, the processes created a set of recommendations including urging employers to enforce zero tolerance policies for GBVH and for unions to prioritize GBVH prevention and make women worker safety a core union priority.
Key to the recommendations is ratification and enforcement of an international treaty on ending violence and harassment at work. Convention 190 was approved by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2019 after a decade-long campaign led in part by the Solidarity Center and its partners. C190 now must be ratified by governments, and union activists are mobilizing members and allies in ratification campaigns that include awareness-raising about GBVH at work. South African unions, led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), successfully pushed for ratification in 2021.
Reaching Marginalized Workers
Amina Lawal, a Solidarity Center-trained GBVH researcher, leads the way for Nigerian Labor Congress leaders in Lagos’s Mile 12 market. Credit Solidarity Center / Nkechi Odinukwe
In Nigeria, union activists are using awareness raising to address the intersecting challenges facing workers with disabilities who also experience GBVH and gender discrimination at work. Through a weekly radio program and public service ads, the program elevates the voices of workers with disabilities who already are marginalized because of their status, providing a platform where they discuss their concerns around GBVH and access to equal rights to work and pay.
The radio program also is an avenue to reach workers in Nigeria’s large informal economy. Following the adoption of C190, union leaders at the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC), with Solidarity Center support, began training vendors at the sprawling Mile 12 market in Lagos. The vendors formed a GBVH task force that worked with the NLC to develop a market code of conduct covering gender-based violence and harassment and helped raise awareness among vendors about their rights to a violence-free workplace.
Their outreach resulted in the identification of multiple cases of rape and sexual assault against minors, who often assist their parents in the market. Five people have been arrested and now are awaiting trial for allegedly violating the rights of children between 9 and 14 years old, said Agnes Funmi Sessi, NLC Lagos State Council chairperson.
Building Leadership Skills, Building Power
The OxYGen foundation in Armenia, with Solidarity Center support, held “Women for Labor Rights” seminars this year as part of its professional empowerment network. Credit: Solidarity Center
Building leadership and power within historically marginalized populations to take on issues and traditional hierarchies is a key part of Solidarity Center’s focus on ensuring equality and inclusion at the workplace.
In Armenia and Georgia, young women workers are learning crucial employment skills as part of Strengthening Women’s Participation in the Workforce, a Solidarity Center-supported program in partnership with professional networks and other civil society organizations. The project seeks to increase women’s full, equal and safe participation in the workforce, including vulnerable women workers’ access to decent work. Training sessions include exposure to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions and other career development, and cover labor rights, including the right to a safe and healthy workplace. The programs reach women in rural areas, many of whom are marginalized with limited access to job opportunities and skills building.
In Armenia, where the project operates as the Women Professional Empowerment Network (WPEN), young women take part in an interactive exchange that fosters the development of a supportive network and includes upskilling and raising awareness of employment opportunities, along with advice and guidance about the most in-demand new careers.
Women Delivery Drivers Stand Strong Together
“Not just in Colombia, but worldwide, women are always the ones that are the most vulnerable and paid the worst”—Luz Myriam Fique Cárdenas. Credit: UNIDAPP_Jhonniel Colina
Addressing GBVH is an essential part of campaigns mobilizing app-based drivers to achieve their rights on the job, including the freedom to form unions, as the safety risks they face every day are especially compounded for women platform workers.
“Not just in Colombia, but worldwide, women are always the ones that are the most vulnerable and paid the worst,” Luz Myriam Fique Cárdenas told participants earlier this year at a Solidarity Center-sponsored event, Women Workers Organizing: Transforming the Gig Economy through Collective Action. “We suffer harassment. We don’t have security in the streets because we’re women,” said Cárdenas, president of Unión de Trabajadores de Plataformas (Union of Platform Workers, UNIDAPP) in Colombia.
Recently in Mexico, the Solidarity Center hosted women delivery drivers from seven countries in Latin America and in Nigeria. The eight unions participating agreed on five key gender-focused points for inclusion in the Convention on Decent Work on Digital Platforms now being drafted for consideration by the ILO. The women leaders at the Alza La Voz (Raise Our Voice) forum are planning a joint campaign to ensure the convention addresses the specific challenges women app-based workers face.
As throughout the campaigns to end GBVH at work, women app-based drivers are finding strength in joining together and experiencing the power to improve working conditions through collective action.
“We have to create alliances,” Shair Tovar, gender secretary of the National Union of Digital Workers (UNTA) in Mexico, told participants. “Women can achieve enormous things together.”
A garment union leader in Bangladesh and four garment union leaders in Honduras were killed over the weekend, murders the Solidarity Center and global union and human rights organizations are strongly condemning, and which they say highlight the need for employers and governments in every country to ensure workers can safely exercise their basic rights to form and join unions.
“The perpetrators of these horrific murders must be brought to justice,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “Assaults on workers and union leaders for trying to form unions and exercise their fundamental rights are increasing worldwide. These heinous actions highlight the growing attacks on democratic freedoms, and must be answered with strong measures to safeguard worker rights and all forms of democracy.”
Shahidul Islam. Credit: Shahidul Islam.
Shahidul Islam Shahid, a union leader in the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), was killed June 25 in Gazipur, after he and union co-workers met with factory workers to discuss how to address unpaid wages. The workers at the Prince Jacquard Sweaters Ltd. had not been paid in May or June and had not received their Eid-ul-Azha holiday bonus. Shahidul, president of the BGIWF Gazipur District Committee, agreed to take up the issue with the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments at Tongi the next day.
When Shahidul left the factory after the discussion, a group of assailants stopped him. They shouted at him, “You are here for workers’ pay!” and started viciously punching and kicking him. The perpetrators beat him unconscious and left him on the road. Bystanders took him to a nearby hospital, where was pronounced dead. Shahidul, a father of two, was the sole financial supporter of his family. His wife is suffering from a life-threatening illness.
In a statement, the Solidarity Center says it joins BGIWF “in demanding that all stakeholders, including global brands sourcing in Bangladesh, hold suppliers accountable to basic human rights standards in garment factories.
“We call on the government of Bangladesh to step up their protection of trade unionists who are exercising their fundamental rights to organize—rights protected under Bangladesh and international law.”
SITRAGSAM President Xiomara Beatriz Cocas, former president and current delegate, Delmer Josue García, delegate José Rufino Ortíz and delegate Lester Arnulfo Almendarez. Eduardo Alexander Melendez, the son of SITRAGSAM president Xiomara Cocas, also died when armed assailants entered a billiards hall where the group was celebrating a birthday, and began firing.
The attack took place in the same week in which the union had received the announcement from apparel maker the Gildan corporation announced it was shuttering its Gildan San Miguel factory. The union was in initial discussions about the closure, which will leave 2,700 workers unemployed.
The Solidarity Center is calling on the Honduran government “to take all necessary measures to fully investigate these crimes and bring those responsible to justice” and “to ensure the safety of the workers employed in the area, especially those who join together to defend their rights and represent their collective interests.”
The Solidarity Center joins the U.S. and international labor movements in condemning the brutal murder of Shahidul Islam, a worker leader who was killed as a result of his labor rights activism in Gazipur, Bangladesh. Shahidul, a member of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), fought for worker rights throughout his 25-year-long journey as a trade union organizer and died fighting for what he believed in.
According to the first information report of the case filed at the Tongi (West) Police Station, Shahidul, president of BGIWF’s Gazipur district committee, was attacked after leaving a meeting with workers at a Prince Jacquard Sweaters Ltd. factory. Shahidul and workers had met to discuss how to ensure the payment of two and half months’ wages and the Eid-ul-Azha festival bonus. According to the report, after Shahidul and other union representatives left the factory premises, a group of people attacked them, shouting, “You are here for workers’ pay!” The assailants reportedly started viciously punching and kicking Shahidul, leaving him critically wounded. Bystanders took him to a nearby hospital where he was declared dead.
Eleven years ago, in April 2012, another worker leader, Aminul Islam, was tortured and murdered. Aminul was BGIWF president and an organizer with Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS) and a key player in the country’s movement to advance worker rights. The Solidarity Center knew both Shahidul and Aminul personally, and for decades admired their dedication to the worker movement.
Murder of trade unionists is the most extreme and horrific form of anti-union violence, and has a chilling effect on freedom of association. In a country where some employers systematically prevent independent unions from representing workers, the fear stoked by a second horrific murder of a BGIWF leader will undoubtedly make the task of organizing trade unions in Bangladesh even more difficult. Shahidul’s murder this week and Aminul’s murder over a decade ago underscore the absence of an environment where workers can freely exercise their rights without intimidation.
The Solidarity Center joins BGIWF in demanding that all stakeholders, including global brands sourcing in Bangladesh, hold suppliers accountable to basic human rights standards in garment factories. And we call on the government of Bangladesh to step up their protection of trade unionists who are exercising their fundamental rights to organize—rights protected under Bangladesh and international law.
The Solidarity Center stands in solidarity with BGIWF in demanding justice for Shahidul Islam and safety for workers and union members who continue the struggle to defend the rights of workers at the Prince Jacquard Sweaters Ltd. factory and in workplaces across Bangladesh. We express our condolences and solidarity to Shahidul’s family, co-workers and union brothers and sisters.
About Shahidul Islam
Shahidul Islam Shahid, 45, was born at Rajabari in Gazipur’s Sreepur. He began working in the garment industry at the age of twenty. Noticing sheer negligence toward worker rights, he began working as an organizer and became a union leader. From 1999 to 2002, he worked alongside Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers’ Union Federation (BIGUF). In 2006, he joined Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS) as a senior organizer and worked there till 2012. The same year, he became a senior organizer at BGIWF, and later became the president of its Gazipur District Committee. Throughout his career, Shahid successfully mobilized thousands of workers to join unions and empowered them to become solid factory-level leaders. He also assisted thousands of workers to receive arrears and severance pay wrongfully denied by their employers. His contributions to the labor movement were truly remarkable. His murder serves as a reminder of the terrible odds garment workers are up against in Bangladesh and represents an immense loss for the labor movement.
Demanding the ratification of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189, Decent Work for Domestic Workers, leaders and members of the National Domestic Women Workers Union (NDWWU) on June 16, 2022, rallied in front of the National Press Club in Bangladesh to mark International Domestic Workers Day.
They also demanded the ratification of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention on violence and harassment in the world of work (ILO C190). A Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS) report says 12 domestic workers were raped in 2020.
Although Bangladesh presided over the 100th session of the International Labor Conference and voted for ILO C189, the country’s domestic workers still are not protected by the global treaty because the government has yet to ratify it.
When Sitara Begum, 60, approached law enforcement after being harassed at her job as a domestic worker they did not assist her, and she was forced to flee from her employer. “In 22 years of working as a house help, I had to endure many such incidents. When does our agony stop?” she asks.
Domestic worker Rehana Akter Mita, 37, her family’s only breadwinner, earns $96.59 per month, which does not cover living expenses. Mita often takes loans from relatives to support her son’s education and husband’s medical costs.
The 2006 Bangladesh Labor Act does not recognize domestic worker rights. Domestic workers and their unions are urging the government to ratify ILO C189, a global treaty ensuring domestic workers their rights on the job.
A new internal Solidarity Center survey finds that, although Bangladesh claims the global lead in eco-friendly ready-made garment (RMG) manufacturing, government officials, factory owners and global fashion brands are not adequately addressing unhealthy working conditions, dangerous pollutants in the factory-adjacent communities in which garment workers are trapped by poverty wages, long working hours, or the negative effects of garment manufacturing on the environment.
Even in so-called green factories, “different stages of garments production may have serious impact on the physical and mental health and safety of the workers—emanating from yarn dust, excessive heat, use of chemicals, accidents, communicable diseases, lack of basic amenities and excessive workload,” says report author University of Dhaka International Relations Professor Dr. Syeda Rozana Rashid Rashid.
Bangladesh is the world’s top global sourcing location for international fashion brands. Of the country’s estimated 5,000 garment factories, in 2022 only 155 were certified as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green factories.
A comprehensive green solution, finds the report, requires engagement with workers and their unions as social partners in the design and implementation of environmental practices that also improve conditions for workers through collective bargaining and policy development. Partnership with workers and their unions will promote properly implemented climate-protection laws, policies and processes that better protect RMG workers from unhealthy and unsafe workplaces, factory-adjacent community members from garment production pollutants, and all citizens from climate change impacts, such as flooding and drought.
Also, to protect their health and well-being, garment workers must earn wages sufficient to pay for housing located away from their jobs, and work hours that make transportation from greater distance possible. More than 4 million people work in the RMG sector, most of whom are young women living near the factory where they work.
“The area is full of odorous waste and chemicals,” says a union leader about workers’ living conditions in her community.
“Even local drinking water takes different colors due to the nature of different chemicals disposed of in the river. Situations become intolerable during the rainy season when roads are overflown by the toxic water under heavy rain. Workers get infected by skin diseases.”
Interviews with 20 union members and leaders, and other experts from Dhaka and Gazipur, Savar and Chattogram regions also found that:
Not all green factories are labor rights compliant.
Garment workers’ vulnerability to environmental degradation and climate change will increase until their basic rights and needs are addressed by government and employers.
The communities surrounding RMG facilities are significantly impacted in terms of health, quality of life and, in many cases, by associated impacts on their livelihoods from farming and fishing.
Suffering due to excessive heat has become pervasive in RMG factories due to climate change, especially in the hot summer season, where lack of ventilation increases workers’ risk of being infected with communicable diseases, including COVID-19.
Many factories will not allow workers to organize, impeding their education on how production, climate change impacts and environmental degradation are linked to their health and well-being.
Global fashion brands largely do not take responsibility or accountability for environmental degradation, instead putting the responsibility on suppliers.
Although global fashion brands use their code of conduct as a voluntary policy tool to focus on international standards, they mostly ignore climate issues and their impact on workers and their communities.
The impact of climate change on factory workers is overlooked by formal inspection and monitoring mechanisms.
Union respondents cannot engage global buyers in pressuring local producers to implement measures to improve workers’ living conditions.
Without implementation demands and effective implementation processes, global brands’ prescribed eco-friendly standards appear to exist for appearances only in a process known as “greenwashing.”
“The factory is not green for the workers. We see a rosy picture; we hear nice stories. In reality, you would hardly hear workers’ voices in a green factory,” reports a union leader.
Bangladesh’s RMG sector accounts for 84 percent of the country’s exports. RMG exports more than doubled from 2011 through 2019—from $14.6 billion to $33.1 billion.
With long-term experience in people-centered policy and legislative rights-based advocacy, workers and their unions in Bangladesh are uniquely positioned to push forward a rights-based climate agenda as well as participate in a global climate justice movement.
“Without a union to safeguard workers’ interests and freedom of expression, no factory can properly be considered green,” says Sonia Mistry, Solidarity Center climate change and just transition global lead.
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