SEXUAL harassment of apparel workers continues unabated as factory management is reluctant to acknowledge it as a problem. A Manusher Jonno Foundation study shows that 22.8 per cent women workers are sexually harassed at work. On March 18, an apparel worker of Donglian Fashion at Ashulia was sexually harassed by a factory official she used to work for. When the 18-year-old and her co-workers protested at the incident, they were fired. In this connection, 17 workers of the factory were also fired, who later demanded their reinstatement and punishment of the harasser. Affected workers observed hunger strike until the local police assured them of raising the issue with the management and resolving the crisis. The factory does not have any anti-sexual harassment committee and the management termed the allegation of harassment ‘nothing serious’. It is evident from the Donglian Fashion incident that the apparel sector is prone to suppress cases of sexual harassment and generally unwilling to secure a safe environment for women.
This is not the first study that depicted unsafe working condition for women in the apparel sector. A 2018 study shows how for a total 86 per cent of women, male supervisors were main perpetrators of violence or harassment in factories. Although, keeping to a High Court directive, every workplace, which includes industrial units, must institute anti-sexual harassment committee, 38 per cent apparel of the factories still do not have any such committee. Women workers’ response shows that the grievance mechanism is ineffective as around 43 per cent of women workers who complained in the past never received justice. Labour rights activists argue that the denial of trade union rights in the sector has disempowered women and allowed management to exercise arbitrary power that they can fire workers instantly and created a fearful situation where it is nearly impossible for workers to report incident of sexual harassment. The 2018 survey findings are not surprising when they say that 67 per cent of women did not report incidents of sexual harassment because of a low level of trust in preventive measures and 22 per cent did not report incidents out of fear for dismissal.
The prevalence of sexual harassment in the apparel sector indicates that women’s empowerment in the sector that the government as well as the owners’ association boast of is an empowerment without workplace safety. The government must, therefore, immediately ensure that all industrial units immediately comply with the court directive by instituting anti-sexual harassment committee. In order to make the committees effective and prevent the exercise of arbitrary power by the management, the government must also grant trade union rights to apparel workers. Only law and policy will not prevent sexual harassment unless implementing bodies such as owners’ associations and the management acknowledge it as a problem.
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