The partial withdrawal of EU trade privilieges will hit Cambodia's garment workers hard. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

The global MeToo movement against sexual harassment has reached Asian workplaces, with the International Labour Organization pushing for better safeguards against abuse, especially in the exposed garment trade.

Last month the NGO ‘Asia Wage Floor’ released a six-year study into gender-based violence at garment factories in Cambodia, Indonesia and Bangladesh that supply US retail chain Walmart. It found that women were most likely to be victims.

“Women are disproportionately affected by violence due to the impact of gendered inequalities, discrimination, roles, relations, stereotypes, patriarchy, and unequal power relations,” the report said, adding abuse also occurred “during commutes and in employer-provided housing”.

235 million ‘unprotected’

Noting that 235 million were unprotected globally against sexual abuse in the workplace, the ILO released a separate report with a series of guidelines earlier this month for the reform of legal frameworks. Australia has already said it will launch an independent probe into sexual harassment in workplaces.

More than one-third of nations do not have any legal protections against sexual abuse. In Asia, there are explicit laws prohibiting sexual harassment in South Korea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Vietnam, Thailand, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Pakistan and Australia.

China, India, Taiwan and Bangladesh generally only offer women protection against harassment in a physical sense. But Japan, Indonesia, Nepal, North Korea, Maldives, Russia, Papua New Guinea, Myanmar, Iran, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Oman and Yemen have no legal protections.

Some 20% of the 1,837 female respondents to a 2009 survey by Women’s Watch in China said they had experienced sexual harassment at work. And a 2007 study in Hong Kong of both genders found that nearly 25% of workers had suffered sexual abuse; one-third of these were men.

In Singapore, 54% of respondents to a 2008 survey said they had also been victims.

The Walmart investigation into supply chains, conducted by Asia Floor Wage Alliance partners, involved interviews or group discussions with 250 workers at 60 factories making garments for Walmart in Dhaka, Phnom Penh and West Java. They employ more than 15,000 people.

Types of harassment reported by garment workers included inappropriate touching, verbal abuse and sexual coercion, as well as indecent assaults.

Poor women targeted

Most victims were “perceived as less likely or [less] able to resist” because they were poorly-educated and were usually employed in lowly positions; women generally comprise 80-95% of employees at garment factories.

Sulatana, a skilled garment worker with 10 years of experience, related that she was sacked in April from her factory in Dhaka after trying to complain about persistent sexual advances from the general manager.

“He flirted with me, he would touch me on the shoulder or touch me on the head. I thought if I showed no interest, he would stop. It didn’t work. On April 11, three days before Bengali New Year, the general manager called me to his office and asked me to go out with him on the holiday.

“I gently refused. The next day, the production manager approached me and asked, ‘What is wrong with you? Why don’t you spend some time with the boss?’ I refused again and explained that I was spending the holiday with my five-year-old son,” Sulatana said.

On April 19, she filed a complaint with the police, but they said she had no verifiable evidence. Three days later the general manager ordered her to resign immediately. Human resources officials declined to intervene.

ILO guidelines: complaint systems, legal support

The ILO’s guidelines establish protected complaint systems and pressure governments to remove risk factors for abuse by improving workplace culture, legal support, freedom of association and collective bargaining.

They also expand the definition of affected employees to close loopholes exploited by some countries: both formal and informal sectors will be covered for the first time, including migrant workers, volunteers and trainees, while “workplaces” include housing, rest areas and transport.

As it is a United Nations agency, the ILO has no authority to force legal changes and can only make recommendations to member-countries. However, it can galvanize consumer pressure on retailers that fail to insist on verifiable workplace rights by their manufacturers or other suppliers.

The agency wants an international convention enforcing standards on all types of violence and harassment in the workplace that would include a framework for the inspection of supply chains at a regional level. But first, it would need to unravel these chains, which are often difficult to trace.

Even with a framework in place, there are no guarantees that regulators will enforce them. Cambodia, one of the three countries targeted by the ILO study, already has legal safeguards, but the harassment continues.

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