In 2008, following the sexual harassment reports pouring in all over Bangladesh, the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA) brought before the Supreme Court a writ against the Government of Bangladesh on sexual harassment. After careful review by the high court, it was found out that there were no specific legislative provisions for addressing sexual harassment of women and girl children. In 2009, The Court invoked its responsibility under article 102 of the Constitution for enforcing fundamental rights in the absence of legislation. Thus, the Supreme Court defined “sexual harassment” and laid down directives in the form of guidelines to protect women and girl children from sexual harassment at the workplace and educational institutions in both the public and private sectors. Sexual Harassment and Compliant Committee is a by-product of the outcome of the Writ petition.
The RMG sector is a major formal sector employer, the working conditions in this sector—both in terms of occupational safety and building safety and also in terms of compliance—have always been an issue of discussion. And as this sector is the biggest employer of women, there have always been concerns about workplace violence and sexual harassment that women workers have to face in factories. The goal of such committee in a garments factory is for women and girls working in targeted export-oriented garment factories in Bangladesh to work in an environment which is aware of and sensitive to verbal, psychological, physical and sexual harassment and reduce the rate of any form of sexual harassment and abuse.
In one of the factories where ETI operates an SHCC was formed in 3rd September, 2019 with 12 members (6 male and 6 female) by the factory management. The factory has a total of 1330 workers; among which 433 are male and 897 are female. The main motivation behind the formation of this committee was to adhere by the Writ Petition of the high court date on 14th May, 2009 as well as the working guidelines of the factories one of the oldest and regular client brand.
The committee formed to comply with the government mandate however, the committee remained inactive. The management and the committee members did not have any idea of the organogram, roles and responsibilities of SHCC nor it was clear to them how to run the committee. Due to the inactivation of action of the committee and a general lacking of basic understanding of the know-hows of such committee by its members, the workers of the factory were not aware of an already existing platform of raising harassment issues faced by workers, mostly by the women of the factory.
As the factory already had an existing participatory committee (PC) which was active, most of the work and grievance related issues were notified to them but harassment issues were willingly blindsided by the workers as it was not the role of PC or under their jurisdiction. Though in their signboard there was a list of the SHCC members but it was unperceived by the workers. Other complains were attended by the PC and even in the complaint box of the factory no issues were raised. As a result, workers facing such challenges had an emotional and mental affect as well as a drop in motivation in their work which also resulted in a drop in their quality of work. The workers also had a tendency of looking for job opportunities in other factories; which led to high worker turnover.
From 25th November 2021 ETI Bangladesh started working with the factory’s SHCC committee. The aim was to reactivate, capacitate and formalize the committee as well as raise awareness on the issues of sexual harassment.
“I felt kind of unsafe working in a garments factory because I thought if some harassment is faced by me, I will not be able to either continue the work or I will have to face the harassment while I am doing my work. But now I have a safe space which makes me feel secured thinking that if something happens, I have a place to go to where I can get help.”
To reactivate and capacitate the committee as well as to create an enabling environment for the SHCC committee to work, ETI has facilitated training for the SHCC committee members on the role and duties of the committee and how to execute their work to achieve their goals, gender and leadership training for the participatory committee (PC), gender, sexual harassment and gender-based violence training for the management and supervisors of the factory. ETI project officers also have been giving continuous on job support to the SHCC committee on record keeping, strategy creation and execution, negotiation and problem solving.
I felt kind of unsafe working in a garments factory because I thought if some harassment is faced by me, I will not be able to either continue the work or I will have to face the harassment while I am doing my work. But now I have a safe space which makes me feel secured thinking that if something happens, I have a place to go to where I can get help.
To ensure leadership skills, ETI supports the committee to quarterly learning sharing meeting as well event campaigns during Women’s Day and Women’s Violence Prevention Day.
To aware the workers ETI created leaflets and booklets on the role of SHCC committee and on identification of sexual harassment and call to action and distributed within the factories. The organization also created videos and songs to aware the workers on gender-based violence.
- The factory management is creating institutional strategies to ensure no harassment issue is unacknowledged.
- During the initial formation the committee did not follow the legal requirements and did not have any female chairs. After orienting the committee on their roles and responsibilities as well as the designated roles specified in the government rule, the SHCC reformed their committee according to the guidelines.
- The SHCC committee of the factory has set their committee goal to prevent any occurrences of sexual harassment by ensuring the workers are aware of the already existing zero-tolerance HR policy as well as orient the workers on which behaviors are considered as harassment.
- The committee created their own mechanism to ensure no harassment report is unacknowledged by introducing a monthly survey that they have been conducting after the ETI intervention.
- There have not been any cases of sexual harassment reported to the SHCC committee but they have identified that the women of the factory need in-house counselling facility and an emotional support group to balance their personal turmoil to keep their motivation high as well as to ensure that the workers are given an environment where they can thrive to be more productive. Hence, they have also been giving counselling or work as an “emotional support buddy” to the factory workers.
- It was observed by the committee and later on notified to the management that the women feel more comfortable in the presence of women in the SHCC for which the committee, vetted by the management have selected women workers of the factory who may have the leadership quality to be a member of the SHCC. The committee is in process to increase their women participation in the committee.
- The committee members have also been working as gender activists within the factory, for which the women are having more open dialogues regarding sexual harassment which was perceived as a taboo subject to discuss upon.
I love doing my work as a committee lead. I have a greater relationship with the workers and because of that I want to work more for them as well as it has become easier for me because I have formed a personal connection with these workers while working in this position.
- Video documentary, flip charts, songs and campaign days (Women’s Day and Women’s Violence Prevention Day) are the activities that has been highly accepted by the workers as they do not have to just listen to someone talking and have some activities or some form of medium of communication that engages them for the entire duration of that respected activity.
- As each SHCC has two externals who are volunteers and are not incentivized in any ways, they are mostly unavailable during trainings and meetings.
- The SHCC members or the facilitators who are the workers of the factory are overburdened as they have to finish their factory responsibility and then they also have to execute their responsibilities as a committee member. For the added responsibility they are not incentivized.
- From the field experience, the project has observed and also recommends that the number of SHCC members are increased, especially female members to create a bigger outreach throughout the factory among the workers. It needs to be ensured that the selected members are skillful enough to execute activities for the committee.
- Though there are no reported cases against harassment but there is a tendency of not reporting a worker’s supervisor if he/she has acted inappropriately as the workers still fear that their name will be dragged in the investigation and the supervisor may make their path more difficult.
Rashna Mahzabin, Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist (lead) and Sunjida Khatoon, Programme Officer