Human Rights Watch | Combating Sexual Harassment in the Garment Industry

Eleven women garment workers from a factory in southern India sent a hand-written letter to a local union in late 2016. They wrote:

“The plight of women workers … we don’t have anyone who would listen to us…. We have to hear unbearable abuses at work from [name of the finishing section supervisor withheld]. ‘Do you come here to pluck your pubic hair?’ We are tired of hearing these kinds of abuses. We don’t have any other option but to let you know. We have come here to the city from another place to earn money. We too have self-respect and dignity. We have been complaining to the HR [human resources] but the HR manager is scared of him. We are 11 of us who have come together and complained. Please help us. We cannot put our names down because we are scared and want to live and work. They won’t let us be if we put our names down. We want justice…. Is it our fault that we are poor?”

Union federation leaders who received the letter explained that the women were too scared to file formal complaints with the factory. They said that the women feared retaliation both at the factory and back home. Being unmarried and from conservative families, the women were dependent on their families’ permission to work in the factories. If their families learned of the harassment they endured, they risked being told not to work outside the house.

In another Indian factory, Roja R., a married woman in her 30s, worked in the cutting division. She described how her supervisor stalked and repeatedly called her cell phone after work hours asking for sexual favors, promising that he would give her a lighter workload and sanction time-off whenever she wanted. When she complained to the factory’s administration, they said that he was a supervisor who had high productivity and told her such harassment was “normal” and that she needed to take it in stride.

These are not isolated cases. Recent studies by nongovernmental organizations and news reports show that sexual harassment is rampant in garment factories in India, though efforts to prevent it and respond have also gradually increased. Nor is India the only country where this is a pervasive and serious problem in garment factories.

In Pakistan, a married woman garment worker described how a male worker kept winking and making passes at an unmarried woman worker who was seated next to her. When the women complained to the factory’s human resources team, the factory warned the complainant and the accused, threatening to fire both of them. In the same factory, managers threatened to transfer workers who refused overtime work to departments with more men where, according to female workers, the risk of harassment and humiliation was even higher. Workers also told Human Rights Watch that the verbal abuse hurled at them was at its highest during peak production seasons, and felt it was done to make them work faster.

In Cambodia, women workers said that the factory management’s harassment extended to situations outside the workplace. They cited examples where Chinese managers invited them to attend karaoke parties and drink with them, which they found uncomfortable but also difficult to refuse. Women workers also complained about inappropriate sexual comments and advances, pinching, and other bodily contact by male managers and co-workers.

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