Gap and H&M pledged Tuesday to investigate reports that women workers who make their clothes in Asia face routine sexual harassment and verbal and physical abuse.
An international consortium of trade unions and labor-rights groups, including the Asian Floor Wage Alliance, Global Labor Justice, Central Cambodia and India’s Society for Labour and Development, made the allegations last week in a series of publications about gender-based violence in the garment supply chain.
The reports, which focus on Gap and H&M, include interviews conducted over the past year with hundreds of workers across dozens of factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India and Indonesia. All serve to paint a devastating picture of the “daily risk” of violence encountered by women workers, who represent an overwhelming 80 percent to 95 percent of the global garment workforce and rarely hold management or supervisory positions.
Women are especially vulnerable to physical, verbal and sexual harassment and violence because of “patriarchal norms that devalue women’s labor [and] reinforce gendered segmentation of the labor force,” the reports said.
Much of the abuse, however, stems from unrealistic demands born from the pressure to deliver clothing ever more quickly and cheaply. The reports abound with stories of workers who were denied legally mandated sick leave, forced to work through mealtimes and during holidays, even prevented from taking bathroom breaks.
A worker at an H&M supplier factory in Bangalore, India, recalled a batch supervisor throwing her to the floor and beating her, including on her breasts, for not meeting her targets. “He pulled me up and then pushed me to the floor again,” the woman, identified only as Radhika, said. “He kicked me.”
Women workers at a Gap supplier factory in Biyagama in Sri Lanka, admitted to being habitually harassed by their male colleagues, most commonly while waiting in line to clock in or out using biometric fingerprinting machines.
“I have seen supervisors and mechanics pull their hair, hit their buttocks and touch their shoulders,” an anonymous observer said.
A separate report, published last month, described how Sulatana, a production-line manager for a Dhaka facility that supplied garments to Walmart, was threatened with the loss of employment if she failed to “spend time with the boss.” She was eventually fired, and even human resources failed to throw her a lifeline.
Like Gap and H&M, Walmart said it’s reviewing the “concerning” accounts mentioned in the report.
Women like Radhika and Sulatana often don’t report these incidents because they fear retaliation, the reports noted. Few garment workers have any avenues of relief from a job characterized by onerous overtime, poverty wages and unsafe environments. Other risk factors for violence include short-term contracts, lack of freedom of association and unrealistic production targets.
Although few brands and retailers own the factories that produce their merchandise, companies like Gap, H&M and Walmart cannot disavow their responsibility to worker welfare, particularly when they’re responsible for inflicting the pressures in the first place, according to the reports.
“The structure of production in global production networks, involving several companies across multiple countries, allows brands and retailers to dictate sourcing and production patterns while deflecting accountability for how purchasing practices drive severe violations of rights at work,” one report said.
A new convention
All three reports were released ahead of the annual International Labour Organization conference this week in Geneva, where talks will center on a new international treaty to protect workers from harassment and violence.
Gap and H&M told the Guardian that they welcome any efforts to ameliorate workplace violence, including a potential ILO convention.
“We are committed to making sure that the people who make our clothes work in safe conditions and are treated with respect,” a Gap spokesperson said. “We’ve consolidated our supplier base to focus on partners that share our values and goals, and an increasing number of factories we source from are audited by ILO’s Better Work program.
H&M said it would pour through every section of its report and follow up with the local teams in each production country.
“All forms of abuse or harassment are against everything that H&M group stands for,” the company said in a statement. “Violence against women is one of the most prevalent human rights violations. Gender-based violence makes women all around the world suffer daily and undermines their health, dignity and security.”