“The workload is tremendous here. They swear at us when we fail to complete the work. They scold. They say, ‘Hey you! Daughter of a b***h, daughter of a pig! How come so much work has been piled up?’ At such times I feel really bad. I cannot stand this. I cry. I feel like quitting job. But I can do nothing. I have to work here to take care of my family. My family lives on my earnings.” So said Rimi, a sewing operator at a ready-made garment (RMG) factory in Bangladesh.
When it comes to tackling violence against women, economic empowerment through employment has rightly been seen as a force for good: Women who are able to earn money are better positioned to prevent or escape from violence at home.
But that’s not always the whole story.
For Rimi, the workplace is merely a new source of violence and fear -- and many Bangladeshi women have similar tales to tell.
Sexual harassment is a hidden form of violence but is endemic in the RMG industry in Bangladesh.
While concrete evidence is not readily available, a study by the Fair Wear Foundation estimated that about 60% of female workers in Bangladesh have experienced harassment at work.
Violence against women is bad for everyone. It disempowers female workers, lowers productivity, drives out talent, and badly damages the reputation of global brands.
It’s also bad for the global economy: Research suggests that as much as 2% of global GDP is used in responding to violence against women.
What’s more, tackling workplace violence can have a spillover effect.
Empowering and helping women to tackle violence at work can equip them to combat domestic and intimate partner violence, while training directed at men can stop violence at its source.
Norms matter, and they’re deeply ingrained. When women are seen as inferior to men, as more responsible for menial tasks, as dependent on men, or as unsuited to the working world, they are far more likely to be victims of violence in the workplace and at home
When we consider that, in India, a woman can lose as much as five days of paid work as a consequence of intimate partner violence, there is a compelling business case for empowering women not just in the workplace, but in their personal lives as well.
So, if there is such strong case against violence against women, why it is still happening?
On the one hand, managers and supervisors in factories come under pressure to deliver on strict production targets and shipping deadlines.
Men might lack the soft skills to manage high-stress situations, and might therefore believe that shouting and harassment can speed up production.
Dominant cultural norms might make these forms of violence acceptable, and might also ensure that women feel unable to speak up about it. Norms matter, and they’re deeply ingrained.
When women are seen as inferior to men, as more responsible for menial tasks, as dependent on men, or as unsuited to the working world, they are far more likely to be victims of violence in the workplace and at home.
Such beliefs have developed over centuries and are tied to longstanding traditions and institutions.
And this issue is far from particular to Bangladesh: Women give similar accounts in every country, all around the world.
So how can we tackle a problem that manifests in the workplace but also stems from larger social imbalances and injustices?
What’s clear is that, while compliance with legislation is a vital first step for companies, it is not sufficient to eliminate workplace harassment and violence.
Brands and factories should be commended for compliance with legislation that aims to tackle violence against women, and we must help them reach that point. But compliance must be the beginning, not the end.
The key is to tackle the root causes of violence and create a safe and harmonious working enviornment.
For women workers, that means being able to recognise harassment and violence for what they are; knowing where and how to report the incidents; and understanding what rights they have.
For male colleagues, it means understanding how social norms might be discriminatory and how they can lead to violence.
For supervisors and managers, it means developing effective policy on the prevention of, and redressal for, violence, building the skills to handle stressful environments, and ensuring that violence is not seen as the only way to meet targets.
To change attitudes and norms in this way, large-scale training programs are needed.
Every day, millions of women (and men) gather in factories in Bangladesh, providing an extraordinary opportunity to reach large numbers of individuals and influence behaviors.
At the same time, brands and factories cannot be expected to do this alone: They need the help of local NGOs, who have the expertise to deliver tailored training programs, understand the local context, and can speak to workers in a supportive, non-threatening way.
And the programs cannot be taken to scale without the buy-in of trade unions and local and national governments, who have the funding and infrastructure to develop movements with global impact, and can also improve standards, policies, and legal requirements to drive progress.
At BSR’s HERproject, we believe that workplaces can be a game-changer for women’s empowerment.
Workplaces can be the entry-point we have been looking for to tackle the global scourge of violence against women.
That’s why we are launching HERrespect -- a third pillar in the HERproject program focusing on tackling violence against women and promoting gender equality through workplace interventions.
Our pilot program in Bangladesh, implemented by Change Associates, will give us a clearer idea of the challenges and opportunities.
But our goal is clear: There is no place for violence at work and home, and everyone has a responsibility to combat violence against women.
We recognise that any form of empowerment for women is completely dependent on freedom from violence and respect in the workplace.
Working together, we can change the life of Rimi and unleash the full empowering potential of paid work in the RMG industry.
Marat Yu is Manager, BSR.