How tackling sexual harassment in the workplace promotes Women’s Economic Empowerment: Learning from the Cambodian garment industry

by 22nd May 2017
Logo from CARE’s multi-media Sexual Harassment Prevention Package for Garment Factories in Cambodia Logo from CARE’s multi-media Sexual Harassment Prevention Package for Garment Factories in Cambodia

CARE is presenting a session on sexual harassment in the workplace at the SEEP Network Learning Forum on Women’s Economic Empowerment. So what are the implications for the industry of the prevalence of sexual harassment, and how can the industry provide a safer work environment for women?

Cambodia’s garment sector employs 700,000 people, of whom 80-85% are women. A vast majority migrate from their home provinces for employment and send up to 40% of their incomes in remittances home. Almost one third of foreign direct investment is channelled into the garment sector which makes up 80% of Cambodia’s exports. The availability of work for women in the garment sector is giving more women opportunities to gain economic resources. It is also changing the social fabric of Cambodia, with so many migrating to take up these jobs.

There is no denying that the garment industry in Cambodia is a huge economic driver and has played a role in poverty reduction. This makes the sector’s growth and regulation a sensitive subject for government policy, yet this industry is built on the manual labour of young women, who have rights to decent and dignified work.

Inequality, discrimination, and harassment

Women’s dominance and economic engagement in the garment workforce is marred by a lack of protections and pervasive gender inequality. Exposure to sexual harassment is one such inequality.

While there have been significant gains in terms of increases to the minimum wage in recent years, women reported making USD 145/month compared to USD 161 for male workers. Although they make up 85% of the garment workforce, women take up less than 4% of line leader or office roles. And while the majority of workers in the industry are women, sexual harassment is a regular and daily risk that can create substantial restrictions in women’s day-to-day lives. Sexual harassment is poorly understood, culturally engrained and experienced by nearly one in three female Cambodian garment factory employees in Cambodia.

Women practice multiple coping strategies to manage sexual harassment, both in and out of the workplace. These can include:

  • Retorting to insults;
  • Skin thickening - enduring harassment;
  • Story-telling to protect other women;
  • Becoming invisible – being silent, not bringing attention to oneself, wearing clothes that don’t stand out;
  • Being critical of women;
  • Victim blaming;
  • Ostracising perpetrator as a group defence mechanism;
  • Missing days from work;
  • Moving jobs within the factory;
  • Moving to another factory;
  • Dropping out of garment industry;
  • Expecting something to happen - being vigilant and defensive;
  • Limited or no social life;
  • Shouting for help;
  • Walking in groups;
  • Walking quickly or running to factory bus stop;
  • Not answering door at night;
  • Never leaving room at night – even in the case of medical emergency;
  • Sensitivity and awareness of surroundings when leaving factory during night shifts;
  • Being friendly in order to create familiarity.

New research on the Cambodian garment industry

In line with the Dignified Work strand of CARE’s Women’s Economic Empowerment Strategy, CARE International commissioned an industry-wide representative study to examine the prevalence and productivity cost of sexual harassment of workers to the Cambodian garment industry, entitled ‘I know I cannot quit’: The prevalence and productivity cost of sexual harassment to the Cambodian garment industry.

The study combined quantitative survey data from 1,287 workers across 52 factories, with 25 qualitative interviews and 9 focus groups conducted in a variety of different living and working environments. 28.6% of women reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace and 16.5% of women reported experiencing sexual harassment outside the factory.

With weak mechanisms for reporting and addressing sexual harassment, women have few options for their safety and to seek justice. And this mental stress of self-regulation takes a toll on the industry. CARE’s research estimates the productivity cost of sexual harassment in the Cambodian garment industry at USD 89 million. Strengthening policy, its implementation, and complaints mechanisms and processes can support the industry to create a safer work environment and reduce the productivity loss caused by sexual harassment and violence.

CARE's response: A complete 'prevention package'

In the absence of government regulation or remedies for workplace harassment, employer solutions can fill the gap. CARE’s multi-media Sexual Harassment Prevention Package for Garment Factories in Cambodia, which includes a short drama – ‘Chanda’s Story’– provides the tools for garment factories to stop sexual harassment.

This is not just a policy and not just training. The package is a culmination of years of work with garment factory HR Managers. Through CARE’s two-day training on gender and sexual harassment to HR managers at garment factories, we learned that awareness and good intentions are not enough; there needs to be a factory-specific policy that sets out clear procedures to be followed in cases of harassment so that workers are protected.

Buy-in and support from the garment industry

To ensure buy-in and ownership from factories CARE worked with six factories consultatively, who developed and piloted this policy. This makes the policy uniquely suited to the situation of garment factories in Cambodia. Policies are pointless unless they are widely used!

Feedback from factories was that they needed extra assistance to educate workers about sexual harassment and convince them that there is a safe procedure they can use to report. The training toolkit, featuring ‘Chanda’s Story’, allows factories to do just that.

By following Chanda’s story, factory workers will be able to relate to and empathise with the experience of someone who has been harassed. The training not only demonstrates the procedures in the policy, it encourages workers to listen to and support each other, and take the message that “sexual harassment stops here” out into their communities.

CARE’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Package for Garment Factories in Cambodia includes:

  • CARE’s standard Workplace Sexual Harassment Policy for Garment Factories in Cambodia
  • An Implementation Guide for the workplace policy
  • A Training Toolkit, ‘Sexual Harassment Stops Here’, which contains:
    A training manual for conducting five workplace training sessions
    A suite of training materials and resources
    A DVD with films, including a four-part drama ‘Chanda’s Story, a karaoke video, and two education videos.

CARE Cambodia’s work to address sexual harassment in Cambodia was financially supported by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women and the Australian Government.

This blog was co-authored by Hannah Lee from CARE Australia.

Adriana Siddle

Adriana Siddle is a Dignified Work and Legal Adviser for CARE Cambodia. She worked with CARE in Cambodia on projects to address sexual harassment and improve working conditions for women in the garment, hospitality and construction sectors. Prior to working in Cambodia, Adriana worked in public policy at the Australian Human Rights Commission and Australian Commonwealth Treasury. She has honours degrees in law and philosophy.