THE inclusion of women’s labour, especially in the apparel sector, into formal economy has been considered a major mark of progress for Bangladesh. However, workplace safety has not been guaranteed for women workers. Twenty-two per cent of women workers face physical, psychological and sexual harassment at work in the apparel sector or on the way to work. A study that a coalition of NGOs working to end gender-based violence in the apparel industry conducted shows that 86 per cent of workers who participated in study faced harassment from supervisors or other male colleagues. Seventy-six per cent say that they face various forms of violence from stalkers and transport workers outside. The kind of harassment women workers encounter at factory include abusive verbal reprimand, groping during security check, unwanted touch by male colleagues, intimidation by way of demanding sexual favours, and corporal punishment. Majority of the workers think that the existing grievance mechanisms are ineffective. It is welcome that successive governments have been successful in opening the formal labour market to women but they have failed to create congenial, safe workplace for them.
In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse, workplace safety for apparel workers has improved significantly. However, the changes that took place are largely focused on structural integrity of building or fire safety issues. The unequal relations in the workplace leading to the harassment and exploitation of labour remained somewhat unchanged. Even though a high incidence of sexual harassment is reported in apparel units, issues of gender-based violence has not been addressed either by the labour ministry or by the management. In the baseline survey, 68 per cent of the workers said that there was no effective sexual harassment prevention committee in operation at their workplace or they were unaware of such a committee in the factory. This is a clear violation of the High Court directive to make complaint committees in workplaces functional. The apparel factory management generally appears to be disinterest in terms of maintaining a just labour relation. Women are considered docile and more exploitable a workforce and almost never hired as management staff even when they have the skills and experience. In what follows, labour organisations have suggested that as a first step to prevent gender-based violence, women need to be represented at the management level. As long as women are treated as cheap and expendable labour, discrimination and violence will not end.
The existing national labour law does not have any provision to particularly address issues of sexual violence in the industrial sector. It is time that the labour ministry involved various national and international labour rights monitoring bodies to legally address the issue and provide for effective grievance mechanism for women workers. Meanwhile, women’s rights organisations in solidarity with labour organisation must raise their voice against the patriarchal mentality of factory management and demand the institution of cells against sexual harassment in all apparel factories.
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