World, Asia - Pacific

Bangladeshi garment workers steer clear of 'bad guys'

22% women workers face sexual harassment at and on their way to work, recent study says

Md. Kamruzzaman   | 24.05.2019
Bangladeshi garment workers steer clear of 'bad guys'

DHAKA, Bangladesh 

Nasrin Begum, 45, is the bread-winner of her family. She toils from dawn to dusk at a ready-made garment factory in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, playing the role of a cog in the wheel of the multi-billion-dollar industry that forms backbone of the economy.

The $30-billion industry contributes to more than 80% of the country's export earnings. Interestingly, it rests almost entirely on the shoulders of a female workforce. Some 80% of employees in the sector are women. But are they safe? A new research says 22.4% women garment workers are sexually harassed at and on their way to work.

Begum brushes aside these claims. Her response is a textbook example of victim-blaming.

“It depends on me, if I am aware of myself, I can save myself from most of such harassment,” she said, adding there are "bad people everywhere who try to dishonor women".

Another worker, Bithi Akter, 25, says: "A few evil guys sometimes try to lure new female workers."

However, both women agree the situation has drastically improved in the last few years, but steps like installing CCTV cameras on each floor will serve as an additional safety net for female workers.

Two rights group Manusher Jonno Foundation (Foundation for People) and Karmojibi Nari (Working Women) have conducted a study on the working conditions of women ready-made garment workers.

The report released in early May shows 40% of these workers were harassed and abused on public transport and on sidewalks while they commuted to work.

Furthermore, one-fourth of this workforce reported feeling unsafe working in factories.

Some 28% of all sexual harassment incidents at the workplace were of female garment workers being touched inappropriately by their supervisors at work, the report said.

"41.7% female respondents and 26.74% male respondents say new workers are most likely to be sexually harassed because new workers rarely voice their concerns," the study added.

Earning livelihoods

Both Akhter and Begum form the bulk of migrants from rural areas who move to urban centers like Dhaka to earn livelihoods.

For both of them leaving their jobs is not an option.

Begum moved to Dhaka in 1996 with her two daughters to look for work, after suffering 10 years in an abusive marriage she was forced into as a teenager,

She now works at a garment factory in Lalbag area of old Dhaka for a monthly wage of 10,070 Bangladeshi taka ($119), which she complements by working overtime.

She manages rent, grocery and schooling for her youngest daughter with almost no outside help.

Akter got married three years ago to a man she met at one such factory.

She migrated to Dhaka seven years ago from a remote village of the country’s southern Faridpur district to escape poverty.

She sends money to her ailing mother in the village every month who also takes care of her one-year-old child.

Their tales echo the plight of every other female garment worker in the country, who fight against odds and contribute to one of Asia's fastest growing economies.

Authorities deny report

Garment factory owners have raised questions on the credibility of this study.

“There is no scope to sexually harass any female worker in this industry now,” said Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

“Time has changed, our women are far advanced now, it’s not so easy to harass them anymore,” she added.

Shoma Datta, deputy program manager of Manusher Jonno Foundation, told Anadolu Agency that the government should enact a specific law for safety of women in workplaces.

“A specific law with provision of hard punishment for outlaws and easier process of filing cases against harassment for women in workplaces is necessary,” Datta said.

She added that the current process of filing formal or informal complaints regarding workplace sexual harassment is "time consuming".

The women workers in many cases prefer to suppress their grievances and refrain from lodging complaints out of fear of reprisal and public shaming.

Moreover, during mediation or arbitration, clothing, attitude, and behavior of victims was "discussed in a humiliating manner", their study found, discouraging victims from reporting incidents.

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