What are the major findings of the survey done by Shojag recently on sexual harassment and violence against women in RMG factories?
Shojag is working to end gender-based violence in our garments industry. It is a coalition of five organisations—Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), the Human Rights and legal Aid Services (HRLS) Programme of BRAC, Christian Aid, Naripokkho (in the lead), and SNV Netherlands Development Organisation. Since the RMG sector is a major formal sector employer, the working conditions in this sector—both in terms of occupational safety and building safety and also in terms of compliance—have always been an issue of discussion. And as this sector is the biggest employer of women, there have always been concerns about workplace violence and sexual harassment that women workers have to face in factories.
We have conducted this baseline survey to know the current situation in the factories that we are working with. Our aim was to know what forms of violence and sexual harassment female workers are facing inside factories and also on their way to and from work.
Also, we have tried to find if they have access to legal aid and government support services such as health and psychosocial support, and whether they know about the use of internal factory grievance mechanisms. Ours is a two-and-a-half-year project. After completion we will know whether we have been able to make any difference in terms of workers' safety, awareness raising—both at the management and workers' level, increased reporting of harassment, etc, by comparing the situation as it is now to what we hope to achieve by the end of the project. We are working with compliant factories who are interested in addressing the issue of violence against women and where there are various mechanisms to prevent and redress sexual harassment. But even there, people are still not confident enough to bring it out into the open, report it and deal with it.
We found the situation regarding sexual harassment and violence against women much better than we had expected. Looking at other studies, we thought that women would find the workplace more threatening. But we have found that 89 percent of the women feel secure in the workplace. They feel much more insecure outside the workplace. Twenty-two percent women have reported that they have faced physical, psychological or sexual harassment in the garment industry or on their way to and from work.
Workers are aware of the forms of abuse that are prevalent. Thirty-one percent have said that they know there is a committee to complain about sexual harassment. Although some are aware that they can go to the sexual harassment complaints committee to file complaints, they also think there is no point in going to these committees because they believe they won't get any justice. Of those who had experienced violence but didn't seek any kind of assistance in and outside the factory premises, 67 percent said they have a lack of trust in prevention bodies and 43 percent said they had filed complaints in the past but to no avail.
Although workers have said that complaint committees exist in their factories, what we have found is that these committees only exist on paper and are not functioning. We are working closely with eight factories but in none of these factories have we found these committees functioning.
Why do you think the survey has found such a low rate of sexual violence whereas several other studies have found a much higher rate?
Surveys regarding violence or sexual harassment are always very difficult to conduct, no matter how professionally and scientifically they are done. Because of the sensitivity of the issue and the social stigma associated with the issue, women do not usually speak about the violence they themselves have faced or sometimes in group discussions they may even exaggerate the number of incidences and extent of the violence.
Hence, it is always difficult to get hundred percent reliable data, even with the most scientific methods. Figures even vary between qualitative and quantitative methods. The situations in compliant and non-compliant factories are different. Conditions vary in factories in different parts of the country. Twenty-two percent may seem like a very low rate. We know of many other studies which have found higher rates of sexual violence in the RMG sector. For example, BILS, Karmojibi Nari, Care and Oxfam have found much higher rates of violence than what we have found.
I think one of the reasons why we have found lower rate of sexual harassment is that our survey respondents work in the larger compliant factories which have better working conditions. The situation in the non-compliant factories or sub-contracting factories might be very different. The environment of many of these factories is not worker-friendly and there are not enough safeguards against violence.
Why do these large compliant factories not have sexual harassment complaint committees despite a High Court ruling in 2009 that said every factory must have such committee?
There is a provision in the High Court guidelines that each employer should set up a Sexual Harassment Complaints Committee where victims can lodge complaints. But as we see in many other cases, factories have such committees only on paper. The challenge for us will be to make sure that these committees function properly in a transparent manner. We want to ensure that women workers feel reassured that if they file complaints with these committees, they won't have to face any repercussions, the cases will be dealt with in a confidential manner and they will get justice. They will have to feel that it's their right to lodge complaints.
What should be done to make these committees effective?
The first thing we should do is let people know about these committees—both workers and the management staff. Although the workers are aware of harassment, there is less understanding of what is harassment at the supervisor or management level. They have to know what constitutes sexual harassment and violence against women and that there are legal measures to deal with this.
As for the factory owners, they must understand that if they make these committees functional and can deal with these cases appropriately, it will be to their benefit and will increase workers' morale and productivity. It would be an achievement for them to have functioning and effective grievance mechanisms. We are working with 120 Shojag Sathis from among factory workers who will give support and advice to other workers on this issue. They will help and motivate workers to file complaints and inform them about where they can go for legal and psychosocial assistance.
What role should the government play here?
I think the government is very open and willing to work on this issue. They are already working with ILO and the UN. The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) has requested BLAST to provide training to their inspectors as to what issues to look for in terms of sexual harassment. They need to give more importance to this issue so that the factory management know that they will be held accountable for what they are doing or not doing. In addition, if the government can formulate a law based on the High Court directives on sexual harassment, that would be a big achievement. Because no matter how much we argue that a High Court directive has force of law, people still do not consider it as binding as a law.
Do you think that engaging the trade unions in dealing with these issues is necessary?
The trade unions are very active in terms of wage negotiation and getting salaries on time. Talking with the trade union members, what we have understood is that some of them understand the issue of violence against women or sexual harassment in the workplace quite well. They don't have any doubt that they need to work on this. We have heard a few cases where trade union members have played a role in referring cases of sexual harassment and even rape to BLAST or Brac for legal assistance. But these are isolated cases. I think trade unions should bring the issue of workplace sexual harassment into their main agenda.