*Any views expressed in this article are those of the author.*
Bobbie Sta Maria of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, and JJ Rosenbaum of Global Labor Justice say the drafting of a convention to end gender-based violence against women workers at the ILO’s meeting in Geneva this week is long over-due.
“On September 27, 2017, at 12:30 pm, my batch supervisor came up behind me as I was working on the sewing machine, yelling ‘You are not meeting your target production’,” said Radhika, a woman worker at an H&M supplier factory in Bangalore, India. “He pulled me out of the chair and I fell on the floor. He hit me, including on my breasts. He pulled me up and then pushed me to the floor again. He kicked me.” Radhika filed a written complaint to human resources, but was forced to apologise to her supervisor and return to work.
Radhika is one of countless women who are speaking out about the abuses they have suffered at work, and demanding change, through the #GarmentMeToo campaign. They speak of physical violence and verbal abuse in factories – especially during high-stress production times – sexual abuse while commuting home from work, and sexual favours being demanded in exchange for lighter workloads.
These stories have been hidden from view, just like the women themselves, working away in remote supply chains for companies including Gap, Nike, Walmart, Target.
The International Trade Union Confederation estimates that the world’s 50 largest companies have 116 million “hidden” workers toiling in their supply chains
And the practice is certainly not restricted to the garment trade. The International Trade Union Confederation estimates that the world’s 50 largest companies have 116 million “hidden” workers toiling in their supply chains, with no direct employment relationship or employer responsibility.
Global brands are quick to use female empowerment when marketing their products. But when they exert relentless pressure to get more products for less money, it’s women workers who pay the price.
This week, these women are helping to forge an international convention on violence and harassment of women at work. At the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) centennial conference in Geneva, the final stages of a strong convention to end gender-based violence in the world of work is being drafted with the input of women workers, governments and employers. This would set an international standard for eradicating violence and harassment of women in the workplace, and point the way towards how to put this into practice.
Women workers on the agenda – The International Labour Conference 2019 in Geneva. (Credit: ILO)
This is a huge milestone built on the courage of women – factory workers, farmworkers, restaurant servers, teachers, domestic helpers – coming forward to tell their #MeToo stories and organising for lasting change.
It can’t come soon enough. A new report by Global Labor Justice (GLJ) and Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), “Gender Justice on Garment Global Supply Chains, An Agenda to Transform Fast-Fashion”, released as part of their #GarmentMeToo campaign, exposes how physical and verbal abuse, coercion, threats, and deprivations of liberty are tied to workers’ ability to reach production targets.
The physical violence reported by women workers include slapping, pushing, kicking, and throwing heavy bundles of papers and clothes. Workers reported that “discipline practices” tended to spike after low-tier managers meet with their bosses about hitting production targets.
Downward price pressures, unrealistic turnaround times and financial penalties leave workers vulnerable in the hands of factory supervisors
These match findings by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Human Rights Watch and others that show purchasing practices play a huge role in creating incentives for exploitation. Short-term purchasing relationships, downward price pressures, unrealistic turnaround times, and financial penalties leave workers vulnerable in the hands of factory supervisors pressed to deliver on impossible goals.
The GLJ report also highlighted how patterns of gender-based violence and harassment of garment workers reflect the local power dynamics between men and women. Reports of sexual harm most often featured employment relationships where women held subordinate roles to male supervisors, managers, or mechanics fixing machines.
The ILO’s convention and recommendation will provide an important framework for governments, employers and trade unions to prevent gender-based violence at work. GLJ and AFWA’s report presents The Safe Circle Approach, a transformative model of gender-based violence and harassment prevention, for garment supply chains to adopt in order to end this abuse, with roles for each stakeholder.
One of the cases highlighted by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. (Credit: AFWA)
In addressing this entrenched subordination of women in the workplace, a recent United Nations report recommends gender-specific policies. These include reviewing whether standards or practices are discriminatory towards women and taking action to achieve substantive gender equality and end discrimination, harassment and violence.
The ILO’s draft convention process is the product of a surge of organising by women trade union leaders and their allies, elevating issues of workplace violence and building a consensus with government and employers to support a unified response to these urgent issues.
However, there is much work ahead to secure adoptions and ratifications, to make sure these standards are implemented properly, and reform entrenched practices that heighten the risk of abuse. The organising power and story-telling of women workers has propelled us to this pivotal moment in international standard-setting. However, solidarity and support from a broad coalition for the collective power of women to negotiate with brands and suppliers is critical for ending gender-based violence in supply chains, and empowering women to be change-makers in the global economy.
Bobbie Sta Maria is director for labour rights and Asia at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, and JJ Rosenbaum is US Director at Global Labor Justice.