HARASSMENT at work, especially sexual harassment, in the industrial sector has been on the rise. A Shohag Coalition study in 2018 showed how for 86 per cent of women, male supervisors were main perpetrators of violence or harassment in factories. In March, an apparel worker of Donglian Fashion at Ashulia was sexually harassed by a factory official. When the 18-year-old and her fellows protested at the incident, they were fired. The factory did not have any anti-sexual harassment committee and the factory management brushed aside the allegation as ‘nothing serious’. Sexual harassment is a punishable offence and there is a High Court order that requires all employers to institute anti-sexual harassment committees. However, employers in the industrial sector have remained largely non-compliant. Against this backdrop, the government’s decision support to support an International Labour Organisation convention on ‘Ending Violence and Harassment against Women and Men in the World of Work’ in the forthcoming conference is a welcome move.
In 2015, the ILO decided to launch a standard-setting process on harassment and violence against women and men in workplaces. After three years of consultation with all stakeholders, it will now meet in June to decide the nature of the instrument — a legally binding convention, a non-legally binding recommendation or a convention — supplemented by a recommendation. The decision of the tripartite consultative committee under the labour ministry holds promises, but past experiences indicate that supporting or even signing an international convention or charter has not always worked. Bangladesh is a signatory to the UN Child Rights Convention and claims to end child labour in all forms by 2025 keeping to the Sustainable Development Goals. But the reality of a large number of children involved in risky labour says otherwise. The government has so far also failed in domestic labour management. Violation of the labour law by industry owners regarding timely payment of worker wage has also become common. There has hardly been any instance of bringing factory management to book for failing to perform their duties as employers. Women apparel workers have repeatedly complained how they are deprived of their legally entitled maternity leave. Although equal opportunity is a constitutionally guaranteed right, women are not offered staff-level jobs in factories because of the patriarchal bias of factory management. The government, therefore, needs to do much more than supporting an international instrument to end gender-based violence at work.
Internal guidelines like ILO conventions on labour rights are certainly crucial in guiding the government policy but in the context of Bangladesh, considering that a majority of lawmakers have monetary interest in the industrial sector, the government must abandon its lenient attitude towards the owners and must strictly enforce the labour law to prove its commitment to worker rights.
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