Women’s workplace safety still neglected
While sexual harassment is a regular phenomenon for the increasing number of working women in Bangladesh, it appears workplace harassment and abuse are still not taken seriously by those in charge. The 2009 High Court directive in this regard – to form sexual harassment complaint committees in all workplaces and educational institutions – also remains largely unimplemented. Against this backdrop, it is only natural that working women do not feel confident or emboldened enough to report abuse that they face in their workplaces. Even if a woman wants to file a complaint, she cannot do so in the absence of a proper mechanism in her organisation.
A new study by the non-profit Karmojibi Nari has found that 83 percent of female workers do not lodge any complaint on sexual harassment they face at their factories in the Dhaka Export Processing Zone (DEPZ). Female workers also often do not report on payment delays or issues relating to maternity leave, fearing that they may lose their jobs if they seek remedy. According to the study, around 90 percent of the women workers are unaware of the existence of any safety committees, anti-harassment committees or workers welfare associations in DEPZ. Many also believe that such bodies might be working on behalf of the factory owners.
Besides this study, there have been other surveys and studies in the recent past that also revealed a similar picture. For instance, a 2018 study on female garment workers found that 67 percent of the victims of abuse in factories did not seek any assistance from the complaint committees because they didn't have faith in them. The latest findings by Karmojibi Nari expose the DEPZ authorities' failure to address the grievances of female workers, as well as their own inability to create awareness among workers in general on these issues. From the situation in DEPZ, we can easily guess the condition of female workers in other EPZs of the country.
The question is: how can we ensure safe workplaces for our female workers inside factories? First, the authorities of the export processing zones must acknowledge incidences of harassment inside factories – such crimes should never be put under the carpet in any circumstances. Then comes the question of responsibility for providing remedy to the victims, which can only be done if there are effective complaint committees. The onus is definitely on the EPZ authorities to form these committees, make female workers aware of their existence, and assure them that their grievances would be addressed without them having to worry about their jobs.
Equally importantly, the same labour laws should be applied to all workers of the country. Having a separate law for the EPZs – which does not allow forming trade unions – is only denying workers, particularly women, their right to raise voices about the harassment and abuse they face on a regular basis.