US NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has made a series of recommendations to footwear and apparel companies around the globe to help prevent and respond to harassment and violence at work and, in particular, combat sexual harassment faced by many female garment workers.  

The organisation wants the industry to support a global campaign underway to develop a new international standard that will help prevent and respond to harassment and violence at work. In particular, unions and worker rights groups are calling for a new binding International Labour Organization (ILO) convention on the subject, which is due to be debated at this year’s International Labour Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

In its latest report, ‘Combatting Sexual Harassment in the Garment Industry,’ HRW details the types of discrimination and violence faced by female garment workers in factories from India to Bangladesh, and Cambodia to Pakistan. 

It also explains how many employees are not aware of their rights or of employer responsibilities under laws governing sexual harassment at work, and have not undergone preventative training.

In the absence of strong government regulation, HRW says many brands rely heavily on social audits to monitor conditions in the factories that produce their wares across complex global supply chains. These, however, are not equipped to capture and address sexual harassment or other forms of gender-based violence at work for numerous reasons.

“Learning about women’s experiences of sexual harassment at work requires care and attention to designing a safe space for those willing to participate in interviews, including measures such as the option of workers to be accompanied by support persons into such interviews,” says HRW. “Social audits are not designed to provide a safe environment to victims who experience sexual harassment.”

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Experienced auditors from different countries who spoke with HRW said that they randomly selected workers for interviews on-site as part of a social audit and conducted these interviews through a combination of group and individual interviews – even though many said it was preferable to interview workers off-site. However, auditors did not have the freedom to design such audits because brands or factories paid a very limited amount of money and conducting interviews off-site needed more money and time.

In addition, HRW found conducting on-site interviews, even where the location of the interview within the factory is carefully chosen, does not allow workers to maintain full confidentiality. Workers who have participated in audit interviews say the management knows precisely who is being interviewed or is easily able to find out since all line supervisors would know who has left the line to participate in interviews.

Finally, factories may simply retaliate against workers who attempt to file grievances by dismissing them or not renewing their contract, HRW says. Workers on short-term contracts or daily wage workers were particularly at risk of dismissal or non-renewal of contract.

“Taken together, all of this points to the need for rigorous and consistent government action to prevent, detect and address violence and harassment at work. Audit-centered company due diligence efforts cannot substitute for this. A binding ILO convention is the best path towards clear standards and robust, government-led protections and responsibilities for employers,” HRW says.

Its recommendations to global apparel and footwear companies include:

  • Publicly supporting the drive towards a binding ILO convention to tackle violence and harassment at work.
  • Publishing the company’s global factory lists in accordance with the Transparency Pledge.
  • Designing brand-level grievance redress mechanisms with the participation of workers, unions, and labour advocates, ensuring that these mechanisms are also equipped to tackle sexual harassment at work.
  • Carrying out periodic studies to examine gender-based violence and harassment at work in every production country. Ensure that women workers, unions, and local women’s rights groups with experience in tackling workplace harassment are actively involved in designing the studies and are able to provide information safely. These studies should allow women and union leaders to give confidential feedback about any complaints systems at work, ease of access and use of such mechanisms, and anti-retaliation protection measures.
  • Brands should ask and map out, as part of sourcing and compliance information, whether the factory they are placing orders with has sister companies owned by the same parent company. This would go a long way to help detect retaliation against workers.
  • Taking steps to examine and redress brands’ purchasing practices to prevent and mitigate risks of abusive practices in the supply chain. In particular, examine all practices that reduce a factory’s time available for bulk production. These include brand approvals for materials and samples, producing technical packs for designs on time, and tracking the difference between projected and actual orders.

Click here to read the full report.