Creating a better working environment to say no to sexual harassment in the garment sector

Introduction

My name is Nguyen Phuong Thuy, Policy and Campaign Manager of ActionAid Vietnam. I have been working with ActionAid Vietnam since 2014 where I can have chances to fight the rights for women and marginalized groups such as young people and ethnic minorities who are left behind in the society. I am the project manager for the “Initiative to end gender-based violence again women in Garment sector in Vietnam” project since 2018 which was funded by Global Fund for Women. We are very happy to have this project at the right time as many free trade agreements (FTAs) are in effect, which may have more negatively impacted women’s rights, especially women in garment sector.

Intervention program from ActionAid Vietnam funded by Global Fund for Women

Internal migration has been increasing as the economic situation becomes more open with developed countries. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) companies invested in Vietnam increasingly in recent years, therefore many women migrated to work in Hai Phong and Ho Chi Minh city. That is why we are implementing this project in 4 garment factories: 2 factories are in Hai Phong and the other 2 factories in Ho Chi Minh where most of them are migrant workers. At first stage, each factory has established 2 Local Activist Groups Against Sexual Harassment (LAGASH), who would be the key members to raise awareness of sexual harassment, human’s rights, women’s rights, and social protection to support other women workers in their factories. The Gender Equality Department is under the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, and the Vietnam Lawyer Department are the key partners at national level with the aim to influent advocacy work. More than 1,000 workers, factory managers and government officers actively participated in Campaign “Say No to sexual harassment at work place” in garment sector which was organized in Hai Phong and Ha Noi in 2018 and reached more than 7,000 Facebook users. By the end of project, we would expect to develop a women’s protection plan with the participation from different stakeholders at provincial level and it would be documented for advocacy at national level. In Vietnam, women are seen as being at fault even if they were the victims of sexual harassment.

Economic situation

Vietnam’s development record over the past 25 years is remarkable. Economic and political reforms under Đổi Mới, launched in 1986, have spurred rapid economic growth and development and transformed Vietnam from one of the world’s poorest to a lower middle-income country. A major stumbling block was the U.S. trade embargo, which was finally lifted in 1994. That was followed by Vietnam’s joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1995, and later the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC). Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in 2007. In July 2018, the EU and Vietnam agreed on final texts for the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the EU-Vietnam Investment Protection Agreement (IPA). Vietnam was in effect of Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in January 2019 and the main focus of those FTAs are garment and textile sector

Current situation of the garment sector

FTAs have brought many benefits to Vietnam. Typically, for the Textile and Garment sector, which is the biggest export earner. There are about 6,000 textile and apparel manufacturing companies working with 2.5 million employees, while the population in Vietnam is about 90 million. In 2016, Vietnam was recognized as the third top garment exporter in the world, behind China and Bangladesh. In Vietnam, 78.5 % of workers in footwear and textiles are women, who face many issues of patriarchy, violence again women, lack of social protection, and sexual harassment in workplace.

Current issues of Sexual Harassment in Garment sector

According to our baseline survey in 2018 in 4 factories of Hai Phong and Ho Chi Minh in 2018, we have found out that:
· 53.5% of women have experienced sexual harassment from 2-5 times in garment sector, and most sexual harassment victims are women.
· 42.5% of garment workers do not have knowledge on violence against women and girls and never heard about it as there were no trainings on violence against women prevention before
· 86.7% of unmarried women are victims of sexual harassment victims, while married women have lower rate of 66.2%.
· 82.8% of workers have experienced verbal sexual harassment
· 59.5% of women workers have experienced suggestive staring at their body
· 75.2% to 87.4% of victims of sexual harassment keep silent because of feeling shame and fear of losing personal honor. Nearly one-third of respondents said the reason for the silence was because they did not believe they would be protected if they spoke up, showing that the lack of faith in the enforcement of justice in the current society is very worrying.

Sexual harassment impacts women’s lives and limits women’s development. Victims of sexual harassment in the workplace experience negative influences: 72% of victims experienced fear and lost confidence; 74.4% felt anxiety and depression; 52.6% of women had a demotivation at work; 49.8% had a breakdown in the working relationship and low productivity; 35.8% of them were afraid of being dismissed.

The awareness of workers about gender violence and sexual harassment remains limited and inaccurate, thereby sexual harassment behaviors still occur. However, the reaction of victims and witnesses usually tends to be to keep silent, walk away, or blame the victims instead of denouncing the evil act, therefore, these cases have a tendency to be ignored without any proper reports and solutions. Many people overlook sexual harassment, however, it can damage the victim deeply, making them feel low self-esteem and unwilling to expand their social relations as well as having negative effects on their work and other activities.

Garment factories almost do not have independent activities focusing on the contents of sexual harassment prevention in workplaces. In the proposed ILO convention on violence and harassment in the world of work, there is only one article on sexual harassment, and it did not go into enough details enough to protect women effectively.
Beside the issues of violence against women, minimum wage is low and that can not cover enough for living. It is 154 USD per month in 2016 and 166 USD in 2017 accordingly in Vietnam. For that reason, the unequal power relation keeps women workers silent in order to keep their jobs when they are abused.

Legal framework related to gender – based violence

Regarding the Gender Framework, some laws and policies have been approved as such as policies and policy commitments to promote gender responsiveness in public services in Vietnam from 2005 to 2017. The Law on Gender Equality has been in effect since 2007, which requires gender mainstreaming in all laws, policies, ordinances, and resolutions as well as in allocating budgetary resources to gender equality activities. The Constitution was amended to place an affirmative obligation on the State to ‘guarantee the right to and opportunities for gender equality’ in 2013. The State Budget Law of 2015 directs that gender equality, hunger eradication, poverty reduction, and ethnic policies are to be prioritized in budgetary allocations, and that state budget estimates are to include gender equality. In the labour law, one article punishes sexual harassment in the workplace, but the law doesn’t give a definition of sexual harassment.

Recommendations

To end violence again women, power relationships need to change and there are some recommendations as follows:

  • Governments should have a clear definition of sexual harassment in their current labour law. A standard training manual should be developed and trained for workers
  • Increase the minimum wage to living wage to ensure the living condition for workers and reduce power relationship between workers and their managers.
  • Set up working groups in factories to support women workers in case violence against women and sexual abuse happens.
  • Set up a protection mechanism in factories, district and provincial level to deal with violence and sexual harassment cases

INGOs should develop a network to have a stronger voice to protect garment workers in term of increasing living wage, accessing social protection, and combatting sexual harassment. In addition, the Vietnam labour law should have a clear definition of sexual harassment. More policy research should be done to bring evidence of issues facing the garment sector. The proposed ILO convention on violence and harassment in the world of work should have one chapter related to sexual harassment in detail. The FTAs should have one chapter related to gender equality and the current ones should be reviewed and revised to ensure the women’s rights. When problems of gender are solved, it also can contribute to national Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the country as well.