I recently visited a ready-made garment (RMG) factory floor in Bangladesh during a HERhealth training. It was another normal day—hundreds of female workers busy stitching to meet hourly targets and supervisors, predominantly male, patrolling the lines and barking orders. The floors were so noisy that supervisors either had to speak up, or lower their heads down to speak to workers in close proximity, and I wondered what they were saying during those moments: a compliment, an order, or an insult?

Sexual harassment is endemic in the RMG industry in Bangladesh—about 60 percent of female workers have experienced harassment at work. Enduring abusive behaviors is an everyday experience for many female workers, including offensive and sexually explicit language and physical acts. Sexual harassment not only deprives workers of their basic rights and compromises their well-being, workers in such negative environments also tend to have lower productivity and morale and higher turnover, which directly affects the bottom line.

As BSR works to create safe, empowering workplaces through HERproject, we are undertaking a new aspect of the initiative: HERrespect, which will seek to promote positive gender relations in factories to prevent and address violence against women.

To begin the project, BSR supported international research organization icddr,b to conduct qualitative research so that we could better understand the forms and causes of violence in factories. Key findings include:

  • Emotional violence (verbal abuse, scolding, and insulting in public) is common in RMG factories. Female workers are especially vulnerable to harassment when they fail to meet production targets, make a mistake, or request leave. Verbal abuse is sometimes accompanied by physical violence, such as slapping, pushing or shoving, or hair-pulling.
  • Sexual violence is the most hidden form of violence, and there is a high acceptance among female workers that it will occur. Victims do not want to report via official complaint channels, as they are afraid of retaliation, losing their jobs, or negative perceptions of their reputations in the community, which can affect their marriages or marital prospects.
  • Middle-level management positions (line supervisors, chiefs, and production managers) are the main perpetrators of violence. They face heavy pressure for achieving production targets and perceive that abuse is the most effective tool to push workers. Some of them also abuse their power to attain sexual gratification.
  • Beyond the factory wall, many female workers have also experienced intimate partner violence (IPV). According to a previous study conducted by icddr,b as part of a World Health Organization multi-country study, two in five women report suffering from physical violence from an intimate partner in urban Bangladesh.

Although it is a major risk in the supply chain, existing interventions such as auditing and setting up anti-harassment committees are not enough to tackle root causes; when carried out in silos, these measures may even cause backlash, such as proactive committee members being harassed or sacked. To address this gap, and with the support of DFID’s What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Programme, BSR’s HERrespect will take a holistic approach to promoting positive gender relations in the workplace and household.

While it is still in the design phase, the 10-month program will include:

  • Training for middle management and workers, both male and female, on gender awareness and interpersonal skills to prevent and address sexual harassment and IPV.
  • Guidance on best practices and policies to prevent and address sexual harassment, implemented in collaboration with ILO/IFC’s Better Work program.
  • Training for peer leaders on gender in workers’ cafes, where workers gather for leisure and learning after working hours.

As we work through the design phase, we will explore opportunities to create integrated, holistic approaches to workplace harassment, and to work with companies to ensure all workers in their supply chains have access to a safe and empowering work environment. Stay tuned for more—and email us for information on how to participate.