Clothing brands must step up and keep women safe in their factories

In a recent expert survey, countries have been ranked according to their level of safety for women. India emerged as the most dangerous, followed by Afghanistan and Syria. Leaving aside the survey’s obvious challenges – including its attempt to use six measures to compare 10 very different countries – it paints a dire picture of women’s safety around the world. One area where women everywhere face discrimination, inequality, harassment or violence in their daily lives is in the workplace. Governments and companies need to consider how to keep women safe at work.

Globally, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have forced many companies to review their gender pay gap and anti-harassment policies. This momentum has spurred discussions for a new international labor standard that deals squarely with violence and harassment in the workplace.

As in the garment industry, for example, where women make up a large part of the global workforce. Garment companies should do more to create workplaces free from violence and harassment, including sexual harassment. This is not only for the benefit of their own employees, but also for the customers and customers who enter their stores; the models who are the face of their clothes; and the workers who make their clothes and shoes in factories around the world.

In May, while talking to garment workers about conditions in the factories, I met Roja R., a married woman in her thirties who worked in a factory in the Indian city of Mysore, making garments for international brands. She told me that the cutting section supervisor harassed her, asking her for sexual favors. She said he abused her access to her mobile number, calling her after hours to harass her. He promised that if she complied with his requests, he would give her a more manageable workload and assured her that he would approve time off requests quickly.

Roja resisted. She filed a complaint with the factory administration. But the person she spoke to laughed and said, “It’s normal practice and you have to adapt.” No one in the factory management took the steps required by Indian law to end the harassment. This includes the establishment of an internal complaints committee and the dissemination and public display of the names and contact details of committee members. Companies are also expected to develop an anti-harassment policy and disseminate it widely through harassment prevention training programs.

The harassment went on for months, Roja said. She was losing sleep. Coming from a conservative family, she feared that her husband would find out, blame her and prevent her from going to work. By the time I met her, the issues had still not been resolved. Another of her colleagues also told me that she had been sexually harassed in another part of the same factory.

Even in their desperation for some respite from the harassment, they had a point: They wanted the clothing brands they work for to help solve the problem, but not by cutting ties with the factory. If the factory lost business, these women could lose their jobs. They feared not only for their own livelihoods, but also for those of their colleagues.

The factory management exploited this fear. The women say supervisors had threatened them, telling them that any mention of harassment or other complaints to supervisors who inspect factories for labor compliance would cause problems. The women were told, “You will take food from many mouths.” Do you want everyone to eat mud? »

Brands should be held accountable for monitoring and correcting working conditions in the factories they source from, rather than being allowed to conveniently distance themselves from labor abuses.

No doubt a brand should be able to sever ties with a recidivist factory, which shows no willingness to implement legal protections and uphold international human rights standards. But before taking that step, companies need to find ways to help factories improve and ensure workers can raise their concerns safely.

Investing in the underlying infrastructure that translates paper codes of conduct into real-world practices is key to any meaningful effort. Brands should take steps to achieve this goal.

First, they should publish information about the factories that supply their products, making it easier for workers to know which brands are buying from that factory and who to contact if there is a problem. Many apparel companies have been leaders in transparency, but many more have yet to follow industry best practices for making their company details easily accessible.

Second, brands need to recognize the limitations of social and labor compliance checks (called “social audits” in industry parlance), in which it may not be possible to effectively address issues such as sexual harassment. Monitors are expected to document “evidence” or sufficiently corroborate complaints they receive from workers before they can report them. CARE studies and other organizations show how often workers themselves under-report and sometimes don’t even acknowledge sexual harassment.

Third, it is not enough to ask auditors to periodically check whether or not a workplace has a complaints system. The absence of well-trained, independent and gender-sensitive committees to review complaints, coupled with a lack of robust anti-retaliation procedures, risks robbing these systems of credibility. In many cases in South Asia, I have seen female workers who dared to speak out about sexual harassment face retaliation. This included factory management not allowing the complainant to work, suddenly finding fault with her productivity and quality of work, or warning her that she was a troublemaker.

Another problem is that brands often do their own training and follow-up. In fact, it may be more efficient for multiple brands purchasing apparel from the same factory to pool their resources to create a single, comprehensive and efficient system for that factory.

They could ensure that there are effective and accessible grievance systems for workers if their issues are not resolved at factory level. Instead of requiring workers to find and use a different complaints procedure for each brand, which is time-consuming and difficult for workers, there should be a simple and efficient process for them to file complaints . And the process must lead to clear results when problems are detected. Without an effective recourse to grievances that leads to binding results, brands should know that their rhetoric about protecting workers’ rights is pure rhetoric.

In late May and early June, governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations concluded the first round of negotiations on a binding International Labor Organization (ILO) standard to combat violence and harassment at work, supplemented by a non-binding recommendation. Another round of discussions will follow next year.

Apparel and footwear companies should call on employers’ organizations and governments to unequivocally support a binding standard in next year’s negotiations. It would be a major step to help make the world a safer place for women.

Michael O. Stutler