Sexual harassment in the garment industry: What happens when you bring people together to look at solutions rather than problems?

by 23rd Nov 2019
The Business of Women at Work event was held 17-18 October 2019 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Business of Women at Work event was held 17-18 October 2019 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

“I’ve been doing this work for 30 years, so to come to a space like this and have everyone in the room start from a place of ‘we have a problem’ is powerful.” - Robin Runge, Senior Gender Specialist, Solidarity Center.

The safe space referred to above was the recent Business of Women at Work event, where more than 150 garment industry stakeholders from 10+ countries across Asia gathered to discuss solutions to the challenge of violence and harassment within supply chains.

We already know this is an issue affecting millions of workers employed in the garment sector. The most recent on-the-ground reports from our projects show 1 in 2 women workers in garment factories in South-East Asia have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the past 12 months. We also know this has a significant cost to business, with a 2017 study estimating the cost to the Cambodian garment industry to be as high as USD$89 million per year in lost productivity. 

The brands, suppliers, employers, associations, investors and government representatives who gathered in Phnom Penh in October wanted to move beyond the figures to find practical ways of working together to address this problem. So what happened when they had this opportunity?

Convening such a diverse group of participants focused on the same goal had some clear benefits.

Different perspectives have their voices heard

Brands learned about the experiences of women workers directly from individuals working in garment factories. Civil society organisations were able to hear the perspectives of brands, which they commented was very rare. Suppliers heard from investors about why they view sexual harassment as a business issue.

By bringing numerous voices together, attendees were able to appreciate the challenges faced by other parts of the supply chain and ensure solutions will truly be practical.

Crucial questions can be explored in a safe space

There’s no doubt workplace sexual harassment is a challenging issue. Bringing people together in an environment which did not seek to point fingers but instead encouraged everyone to be open about the issue led to true meaningful discussion. Instead of allocating blame or shifting responsibility, everyone genuinely engaged with the topic so the true barriers to change could be acknowledged rather than ignored.

Employers see that action is crucial and possible

Workplace sexual harassment has commonly been a hidden issue which factories did not want to acknowledge for fear of being penalised by auditors or buyers. Rather than sending a message of fear to factories and suppliers, engaging proactively at all levels sends the clear message that workplace harassment is something brands and investors wish to see being proactively addressed. The focus on solutions demonstrated that taking action is possible and provided employers with practical steps they can take, such as reviewing their complaint response systems or ensuring their factory has a functioning sexual harassment committee.

Relationships are built for collaboration and collective action

Numerous attendees noted working together is crucial in order to achieve change. By bringing people together to initiate these conversations about solutions, industry leaders were able to make concrete plans for how they will proceed—plans which involve many different perspectives.

A number of brands and industry stakeholders are now consulting with CARE and Better Work to develop a garment industry response to violence and harassment in the workplace, in the form of Standard Operating Procedures for Addressing Sexual Harassment in Textile, Clothing and Footwear Manufacturing Industry. These incorporate many of the solutions discussed at the event.

The Business of Women at Work event was jointly organized by CARE and Better Work with the support of the Australian Government. The event resulted from collaboration between Better Factories Cambodia and CARE on the STOP project, which contributes to CARE’s Made by Women strategy.

Jenny Conrad

I coordinate communications for CARE's Made by Women strategy, which promotes dignified work for women in the garment industry. I joined CARE in 2013 as Communications Advisor for the Cambodia office. During my time with CARE I have supported CARE Cambodia’s private sector engagement with a focus on the garment industry and led strategic communications for CARE Australia's International Programmes team.

Having started my career in marketing, prior to joining CARE I was leading communications for a global philanthropy publication. I hold a BA in English from the University of Bristol.

Email: jenny.conrad@careint.org

Twitter: @jennyeconrad