The anti-harassment committees are charged with helping female Bangladesh garment workers avoid and prevent unwanted attention and approaches from male colleagues and managers.

However, a summary shared with Just Style ahead of full publication later this month (October 2023) said: “Women workers in RMG [readymade garments] are plagued with problems of different natures where harassment and violence of several forms significantly affect them… The gender-based violence (GBV) and harassment in this industry have multiple facets — verbal, sexual, physical, and psychological.” And it concluded committees were ineffective: “Except in a few cases, most of the committees could not provide any solid/robust example of solving issues/problems through the committee initiative,” said the shared summary.

Bangladesh anti-harassment committees for female garment workers

These anti-harassment committees have been established under a 2009 ruling from Bangladesh’s High Court that directed workplaces and educational institutions in all sectors to form complaint committees to prevent sexual harassment. The court ordered that committees should receive complaints, conduct investigations and make recommendations – submitting annual reports to the government. The ruling said committees should operate “at all workplaces and educational institutions…”

“As a result, the garment sector is still lagging behind in ensuring a safe working environment for the female workers, who comprise 60% of the workforce, said associate professor Mostafiz Ahmed, of Jagannath University, while sharing the results of the study this September, according to the local media.

The study, entitled ‘Assessment of Functionality of the Complaint Committee (cc)/Anti-harassment Committee (AHC) in the RMG workplaces’, reinforces the findings of other studies and claims from union leaders that the Bangladesh clothing and textile industry is failing to ensure a safe working environment for female workers, where reports of sexual harassment are common.

Indeed, a vast majority of Bangladesh apparel factories do not yet have anti-harassment committees according to Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) data.

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An undated BGMEA report found committees in 577 within “a total 1,394 factories” it assessed and the BGMEA has around 4,500 member factories.

An additional secretary at Bangladesh’s ministry of labour and employment told Just Style that just over 2,000 committees have been formed so far in various sectors across the country.

Providing a safe working environment for female garment workers

NGOs say they anti-harassment committees for female garment workers are needed. A 2019 study by global non-profit organisation ActionAid International found that 80% of garment workers in Bangladesh that year had either seen or directly experienced sexual violence or harassment in the workplace. Another study published in 2018 by Shojag, a coalition of international development organisations BRAC, Christian Aid, Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), women’s activity organisation Naripokkho and global development organisation SNV, found that 83% of female workers in Bangladesh’s garment industry were then subject to sexual harassment.

Nazma Akter, a prominent workers’ union leader in Bangladesh, president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation and executive director of Awaj Foundation, which aims to protect workers’ rights in the ready-made-garment sector of Bangladesh, told Just Style: “It [harassment] is not limited to common workers or supervisors; instead it has spread to employees at a higher level as well. It’s been soaring since the pandemic,” said Akter.

“The workers here face sexual harassment, verbal abuse, physical abuse, uncomforting stares, touches, etc. From top to bottom, many co-workers are involved in this. If [female workers] don’t agree to their proposals, they lose their jobs, [are] kept standing in lines, and their overtime is cut,” Akter added.

Mostafiz Ahmed, the academic who led the BILS study, said there are several factors why these committees are not effective. A key problem, he said, is the motivation of the factories that formed these committees: “All the [representatives of] factory managements [where the study was conducted] said [committees were formed] because of pressure from the buyers,” said Ahmed. “So, the basic motivation has a lot to do with buyer-driven demands, their compliance, code of conduct etc.,” rather than addressing the issue properly.

Businesses also often do not actively promote workplace awareness of these committees, he said: “Even a factory that excels in every aspect of compliance, sustainability, and labour rights may have an anti-harassment committee headed by a man which is completely contradictory to the high court verdict,” he said, stressing how judges had ordered committees must be led by a woman.

He added that committees lack monitoring from the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE), the designated government agency. Ahmed added that committee members usually were untrained for their work, which is often sensitive and difficult.

And while “during the formation of many of the committees, there was a role for the NGOs”, the problem here is that these organisations are often project-focused: “When a project ends, their involvement reduces. What happens after the NGOs are withdrawn and the committees that are formed afterwards are not well monitored?” asked Ahmed.

Argument for complaints committees working ‘very effectively’

Asif Ibrahim, BGMEA director, however, does not agree with the study.

“I haven’t seen the study yet. But our complaints committees work very effectively. We strictly monitor them from the BGMEA, and so do the clients. There are checks and balances. So, I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the findings of this report,” Ibrahim told Just Style.

However, he added: “It is not like incidents don’t happen – they do occur. But I wouldn’t endorse categorising them broadly.”

When asked if harassment impacts productivity, he agreed: “It impacts the environment in the workplace, morale, and maybe it is related to productivity, but it affects the environment more.”

Towfiqul Arif, an additional secretary at Bangladesh’s labour and employment ministry said: “We don’t have information that harassment is increasing [since the pandemic]. However, it is not adequately known if the victims are yet coming up with complaints to the committees. The victims, for various reasons, perhaps are not going to the committees. Also, all factories haven’t formed the committee yet. It is an ongoing project.”

Akter said that although the BGMEA and factory owners and managers in Bangladesh talk about the environment, particularly green factories, they do not take the issue of sexual harassment very seriously.

“Workers remain in fear of losing their jobs, abuses, etc. It is not the issue of a single factory but rather many of them. It creates a negative impact on overall garment productivity,” said Akter. “It creates a lack of discipline, and in consequence, less earning. And when things come out in public, it damages respect and incurs financial losses both for factories and the workers.”

Ahmed argued there was a “tendency of the authorities to deny” harassment studies and findings, adding: “We need bigger collaborative studies [involving workers, employers, and government] because sexual harassment is not only an issue with the workers, this is an issue with the owners’ image, reputation, overall productivity, and it has a connection with their commitment with buyers and government.”