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Violence Against Women in Garment Factories is Rising. Brands Might be to Blame.

As a garment worker eking out a living in the Indian city of Bengaluru, Saritha knows what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet.

Nevertheless, the arrival of Covid-19 threw her for a loop. A sudden spate of canceled orders at her factory resulted in sporadic closures, mass layoffs and other frantic cost-cutting measures. Saritha held onto her job, but the downsizing meant she was toiling twice as hard and twice as long, even though her managers refused to record or pay for any overtime. She said they would also scream and curse at her if she didn’t meet her production targets. Soon, the verbal abuse spilled over into Saritha’s home, where it escalated into physical violence.

“I would be delayed reaching home due to this unrecorded overtime, and my husband would yell at me, asking me why am I late and whom I was with,” she said. “My husband is always angry and abusive when I stay back to do overtime work. If I refuse to do overtime work, the managers abuse me. If I do the overtime work, my husband abuses me.”

Saritha was one of hundreds of women that the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) spoke to as part of a study into the growing incidence of gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the fashion supply chain and the roles brands have to play.

From April to August, the labor advocacy group fielded startlingly similar stories at Tier 1 factories across Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, where women have borne the brunt of the life-threatening disease and its subsequent fallout, whether it’s the upsurge in economic precarity, work obligations or unpaid domestic care. With women accounting for 80 percent of the global garment workforce, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the problem is an endemic one that threatens to roll back hard-fought gains in gender justice.

The specific decisions brands made during the pandemic have played an outsized role in exacerbating the violence and abuse that women workers already experience, said Ashley Saxby, lead researcher and Southeast Asia coordinator of AFWA.

“We know that GBVH in its various forms was prevalent prior to the pandemic, and is indeed part of the work process that supplier factories used as a disciplinary tool to speed up the work process,” she said earlier this month at an online panel coinciding with the report’s launch. “So it was tragically predictable that this would increase during a time when work pressures were also increased.”

While the ILO characterizes economic harm as a form of gender-based violence and harassment, the full scope of this issue is not yet fully understood, Saxby noted. What’s clear, however, is that the gendered dimensions of wage theft, which disproportionately affects women, are fueling what she describes as the “garment industrial trauma complex,” referring to the heightened health-related stress and extreme mental anxiety that stems from poor brand purchasing practices.

“It is the business models embedded in global supply chains that create the conditions for GBVH [that is] experienced not only in the factory but also in women’s homes and communities,” Saxby said.

This was most apparent during the first half of the pandemic. Suppliers, the study noted, leveraged the preexisting gender pay gap to hire or retain women at low wage rates during periods of lockdown while laying off men whose wages are typically higher. Men were more likely to be rehired post-lockdown, while the reduction in workdays was more acute for women, dealing them a heavier financial blow even as their wages remained persistently low in comparison. It was also taken for granted that women would compensate for the lack of employer-based social protections and public services, meaning they were expected to strap on the “double burden” of health and childcare.

“Women workers subsidized global apparel brands during the pandemic-induced recession in 2020 not only through wage theft but also through [the] social reproduction of the workforce at great personal cost, including the degradation of their bodies and mental wellbeing,” Saxby said.

Women AFWA interviewed described being forced to work during legally mandated lunch hours and prevented from taking bathroom breaks. They spoke of long hours performing repetitive tasks, leading to chronic leg pain or ulcers. They’ve been pushed to the floor, hit, kicked, slapped, verbally humiliated, touched inappropriately and sexually assaulted. Despite the threat of contracting Covid-19, many experienced deteriorating occupational health and safety conditions, including overcrowding, inadequate personal protective equipment and unhygienic facilities. Levels of depression, stress, anxiety and suicide ideation have spiked as a consequence.

“Oh God, put me to death,” Sumaiya, a garment worker from Gazipur in Bangladesh told researchers. “If suicide is not a great sin, I would do that.”

Because of this incessant physical and verbal abuse, the women are “stripped of their basic self-worth,” said Ashmita Sharma, research lead at India’s Society of Labour Development, who assisted with the report. “All of this amounts to nothing less than trauma, and it is carried in the body and mind long term.”

Women, she added, have been forced to reduce their consumption, run up huge debts, sell their assets and forgo medical treatment, resulting in hunger, malnutrition and bodily neglect while making them more susceptible to the virus due to their weakened immune systems.

“Importantly, we also saw how economic harm imposed by brands led to a ripple effect of different forms of violence experienced by women workers in their homes, families and communities,” Sharma said. “Several women noted how long working hours and forced unpaid overtime during the pandemic led to disharmony in families, intensifying instances of domestic violence. It has been a humbling experience and, at times, infuriating to know what these women have had to endure because of corporate greed.”

A way forward is one labor campaigners have repeatedly proposed: enforceable brand agreements that include additional “living wage contributions” to make up the gap between legal minimum wages and estimated living wages. Another lever brands can employ is conducting better due diligence by shifting from self-regulation to mandatory frameworks that hold them legally liable for conducting specific risk assessments and mitigation efforts. There is also a need to promote freedom of association, together with grievance mechanisms at the factory level that are co-created with and accessible to workers who won’t risk punishment or retribution for using them.

“The pandemic has laid bare the structural inequalities within global fashion supply chains that are perpetuated and reinforced by the business models and purchasing practices of fashion brands,” Saxby said. “And while GBVH has always been endemic to the industry, the report reveals to us how the crisis created by the pandemic brought out the very worst in brands while they minimized reduction in their profits and recovered their businesses.”

The report itself names few names, since AFWA is engaging in dialogue with a number of brands to address gender-based violence and harassment at specific supplier factories. This could quickly change, however. “Depending on how these brands act in accordance with their stated commitments in the coming weeks, we are prepared to launch a second report identifying all the names of major brands,” Saxby said.

Gender-based violence and harassment in global supply chains is an important lens to understanding an industry that has a ”preference for hiring women workers from marginalized economic backgrounds precisely because there are barriers to their ability to demand protection and rights,” she said. ”It has made the need for ground-up solutions to GBVH that are designed and implemented by women workers an imperative to a just recovery from the pandemic.”

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