Garment workers seen at a factory in Dhaka in this 2017 photo. Many female garment workers continue to face various forms of sexual abuse in the workplace. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
In her five years in the garment industry, Sharmin Akter (not her real name) changed jobs three times for one reason: sexual abuse.
Sharmin, a Muslim and now aged 25, moved to Ashulia, an industrial suburb near Bangladeshi capital Dhaka in 2013 with her husband and two children from a village in the northern district of Lalmonirhat.
Illiterate and unskilled for any job except sewing, Sharmin was married at 17 to a poor agricultural worker, who struggled to run the family.
In Ashulia, the couple found jobs in two separate garment factories, only for Sharmin to encounter an unprecedented menace.
“The floor manager of the first factory tried to be intimate with me on various occasions but I ignored and told him I was married with children. But he didn’t stop and instead proposed that I either marry him or sleep with him,” Sharmin recalled.
After she refused, the manager forced her do frequent overtime … and even started following her when she returned home at night.
Sharmin quit the job after six months after discussing the problem with her husband.
She was to face even worse in her next factory.
“A senior machine operator tried to sexually abuse me several times. One day he asked me to marry him, but I refused immediately,” she said.
The worst incident happened one night as she was returning home at about 8 p.m. after doing overtime.
“It was dark and the road was empty, so I didn’t notice he was following me,” she said. “Suddenly he grabbed me, pressed my mouth and took me inside a deserted shanty, where he raped me for nearly an hour before I fainted.”
In largely conservative Bangladesh, rape is often a cause of ostracism within the family and in society at large.
Sharmin therefore kept the incident a secret from her husband, fearing he might leave her, but again was forced to quit her job.
After coming across yet another abusive factory floor manager in her third factory one year ago, she decided she needed to relocate to a new area.
Now, Sharmin lives and works in Tongi industrial area of Gazipur, near Dhaka.
A group of garment workers seen at home in Dhaka after returning from work in this 2014 photo. A recent study says 80 percent of garment workers have either seen or experienced sexual abuse in the workplace. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
None of her first three factories had a trade union, so abuse victims like her had no means of organized support.
The problem of sexual harassment still persists but things have changed for the better, so when the manager at her fourth factory started looking at her “indecently” she decided to fight back.
“I informed a trade union leader who works to prevent sexual harassment in garment factories. She insisted the management take action and the man was fired,” said Sharmin, who earned about 11,000 taka (US$130) a month, including overtime.
Apart from her regular factory work, Sharmin also acts now as a volunteer supporter for other garment workers who report abuse including sexual harassment.
She thanked Dolly Akter, an organizer at Sommilito Garment Shromik Federation, a leading trade union, for the turnaround.
“Dolly apa [elder sister] is a brave woman, a savior of helpless women like me. Many workers face similar situations, and we want to reach out and help them,” Sharmin noted.
Akter, 27, is a former garment worker who quit her job to become a rights activist in 2014.
“I also became a victim of sexual harassment in the factory where I worked,” she told ucanews.com. “I was angry about it and tried to form a trade union to prevent abuses. The management was unhappy, so I was forced to leave.”
After couple of other similar experiences, Akter joined the trade union as a full-time organizer and is now the president of the group covering Tongi.
In the past year, she has spearheaded a campaign to unite workers in factories to fight back and resist sexual harassment. She said things had improved, albeit slowly.
“When I started working in the garment sector in 2009, most female workers faced various forms of sexual abuse. It is reducing but slowly. We have a long way to go,” said Akter.
According to a recent report from international charity Action Aid, about 80 percent of garment workers have either seen or experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, but only a few seek justice.
In most cases, the workers suffer in silence and often quit their jobs. Akter’s group springs into action as soon as a complaint reaches them.
“At first we talk to factory management to solve the problem. If that fails, we take support from industrial police,” she added. “Beside sexual abuse, we also look into also other forms of abuse against workers.”
She believes that if every factory had an effective trade union, cases of abuse against garment workers would drop significantly.
Changes but not enough
Bangladesh’s US$30 billion garment industry is the world’s second largest after China’s, supplying clothes for high street brands in Europe and the Americas. It earns 80 percent of the country’s annual income from overseas and employs about four million workers, mostly poor rural women.
Despite being a vital industry, it has suffered from appalling working conditions and poor labor practices for years, leading to accidents and deaths, including the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 workers.
The massive disaster sparked a global outcry that pushed for long-overdue safety upgrades, as well as better workplace conditions and permission to form of trade unions in factories.
Since then dozens of factories have started allowing the formation of trade unions but many are still reluctant, Akter said.
Issues such as sexual abuse are still common and there would be little hope for justice if it were not for the efforts of activists like her.
The existing management system in garment factories is responsible for sexual harassment, says Rita Roselin Costa, convener of the Women’s Desk at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh.
“There is no safety policy for women in most garment factories, and only few women work in top level of management,” she said. “So, senior male colleagues try to take advantage of low-income workers.
“The government should be strict about it and make it mandatory for every factory to include women’s dignity and safety in their operational policy.”
However, an industry official played down the prevalence of sexual abuse.
“Such cases are rare because we maintain a zero tolerance policy toward sexual harassment,” said Chowdhury Selim, a vice-president of the main trade body, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
“I heard about some cases that reached a solution at management level, so we didn’t need to intervene. Our zero tolerance policy on the issue will continue.”