Workplace culture is not the only thing that needs to change
It is no secret that Bangladesh is emerging as an unprecedented development success story. It is assuring to learn about Bangladesh’s GDP growth rate of more than 7%, its MDG achievements, and its eligibility to be a middle-income country. The list goes on and, with every inclusion, we stand prouder as a nation.
But perhaps less pronounced in the development phenomenon are the unsung heroes, the women workers of the country. Bangladesh’s garments sector, contributing 83.49% to Bangladesh’s total exports, is boosted by women, where they comprise 70-80% of the workforce. Women also comprise a substantial portion of the workforce in agriculture, frozen food, processed leather, handicrafts, and tea that account for the lion’s share of export earnings.
The official account of women’s contribution to the GDP growth as 34% does not quite present the whole picture, considering women’s silent but sizeable contribution in the informal sector. And when women earn, they reinvest 90% of it for the improvement of their families.
By all accounts, women’s engagement in the world of work is a pre-condition for maintaining the development trajectory of Bangladesh. In turn, safe, secure, and dignified workplaces are a pre-condition for their productive engagement. But, unlike with the development indicators and export earnings, the data estimating the safety and security status of women in the workplace is harrowing.
A 2018 Kormojibi Nari study on female workers found that four in every five female workers had reported verbal harassment, 23% reported physical harassment, while 12.7% experienced sexual harassment at workplace. The point here is not to single out any particular industry, but provide an example of a sector that has female employees as the majority. Needless to say, we are a long way from ensuring equitable and harassment-free workplaces for women.
Bangladesh is generally endowed with good policies. Bangladesh Labour Act (BLA) 2006, later amended in 2013, broadly adheres to the international labour standards. While the inclusion of maternal financial benefit in the amendment is a step forward in women workers’ rights, yet the protection of women workers from harassment and violence at the workplace is largely left unexplored in the BLA.
At the international front, change has been slow as well. It was only at the International Labour Conference 2018 that governments, employers’ and workers’ representatives agreed to move forward with an ILO convention and recommendation to end violence and harassment in the world of work.
The convention and recommendation is the strongest combination of ILO instruments available for ensuring legal accountability and providing guidance for how legal commitments can be implemented.
Among our neighbouring countries, India -- that already has a dedicated act for prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace -- is likely to support the convention and recommendation.
As for Bangladesh, supporting and voting for the convention and recommendation might be the right step forward in protecting women workers.
True equality for women with adequate protection to work free of violence and harassment are contingent upon not only the workplace culture, but are also deeply embedded within the social and political culture of the country. Such fundamental but imperative change requires bold and progressive initiatives, and the example needs to be set from the top.
While Bangladesh has made substantial progress with the necessary provisions for protection of women workers at workplaces, adopting the ILO convention will set the standard and principles for national policies and laws, and affirm Bangladesh’s political commitment. Additionally, the convention will complement Bangladesh’s aspirations in reaching SDG-5 on gender equality and SDG-8 on decent work.
For a country, where the key legislative positions, including the prime minister, state minister of labour and employment, and speaker of the parliament are all held by some of the most pioneering women in the world, supporting the ILO convention protecting women workers from violence and harassment might be an obvious call. Bangladesh has surprised many with its development boosted by women empowerment; here is another chance to stand out as a role model.
Let’s take a stand on the right side of history by showing true commitment in ensuring workplaces free from violence for every woman. Every day. Everywhere.
Asif Imran Khan is the advocacy coordinator at CARE Bangladesh.