New studies from international advocacy groups find that female workers face daily abuse.
Leading retailers H&M, Gap and Walmart continue to depend on overseas factories where harassment and abuse toward female workers runs rampant, according to new reports from leading union, workers rights and human rights organizations.
In three individual reports, a global coalition of organizations including Global Labor Justice and the Asia Floor Wage Alliance explain how much of the fast fashion produced for the retailers in overseas factories depends on conditions that breed violence and sexual harassment toward women.
“These are not isolated incidents,” Global Labor Justice reports on its website. “Rather, they reflect a convergence of risk factors for gender violence… that leave women garment workers systematically exposed to violence.”
The studies show that while major retailers have said they are committed to improving working conditions in the overseas factories that supply many of their products, much work remains to be done.
The findings also come at a time when discussion about the future of trade is taking place — and a reminder that while much attention has been paid to how shifts in trade relationships might impact companies’ bottom lines, free trade has meant real people around the world have suffered serious abuse.
In each report, researchers examine the ways in which female garment workers are routinely, and often violently, abused in their workplaces. Many also face unwanted sexual advances from their supervisors.
That abuse isn’t just limited to the factory floor, either — these workers also deal with violence and harassment during their commutes and in employer-provided housing, the reports find.
To conduct the studies, researchers held focus group discussions with female workers in garment supply chains and trade union leaders aiming to organize workers. They met with these workers in several countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Researchers then put together case and context studies to document the incidents described by the workers, “including case studies of sexual harassment, retaliation for reporting sexual violence, and barriers to seeking relief.”
Women serve as the vast majority of the garment industry workforce across the global supply chain, although they rarely hold management positions. Instead, they typically work long hours in unsafe working conditions for low wages (almost always without overtime pay).
They’re also forced to work very fast under extreme pressure to meet the production targets of the fast-fashion industry.
“Use of production targets and piece rate wages create sustained pressure among workers to meet targets at the expense of taking breaks to rest, using restrooms and even drinking water,” the H&M report states. It later continues: “Low wages bind women to grinding production targets and excessive overtime hours — and even, then, they may not earn enough to meet basic nutritional requirements for themselves and their families.”
When factory supervisors don’t think that workers are moving fast enough, violence is often the result.
Radhika, a female worker employed in a Bangalore factory that supplies Gap and H&M, described how she was assaulted after failing to meet production targets:
“[M]y batch supervisor came up behind me as I was working on the sewing machine, yelling, ‘you are not meeting your target production.’ He pulled me out of the chair and I fell on the floor. He hit me, including on my breasts. He pulled me up and then pushed me to the floor again. He kicked me.’”
Radhika filed a written compliant, and was called into a meeting with the supervisor and a human resources staffer. The supervisor apologized, and Radhika was warned not to mention the incident again.
The harassment from the manager didn’t stop. Radhika still works at the factory because she is a single mother working to support her physically challenged daughter, she said.
Meanwhile, verbal abuse is commonplace. In a Gap supplier factory in Indonesia, one woman described the typical treatment from her supervisor:
“If you miss the target, all the workers in the production room can hear the yelling: ‘You stupid! Cannot work? If you are not willing to work, just go home! Watch out you! I will not extend your contract if you cannot work… They also throw materials. They kick our chairs.”
The situation is similar in Walmart supplier factories.
“Women workers in Walmart suppliers in Bangladesh described constant and relentless verbal abuse that continues from the beginning to the end of their shift,” according to the Walmart report. “Similarly, Indonesian workers at Walmart supplier factories reported that verbal abuse was daily and ongoing.”
Even in the rare instances when women workers are hired into management positions, they still face harassment.
Sulatana, a skilled garment worker with 10 years of experience, was hired in January 2018 as a production-line manager by a Walmart supplier in Bangladesh. But Sulatana still found herself facing unwanted advances from the factory’s general manager, including flirting and touching.
The general manager eventually asked Sulatana to go out with him; the production manager even offered her a salary increase and promotion if she agreed. Sultana declined, and the production manager threatened to fire her. When she went to the police to file a complaint, they refused to help.
“Sulatana had no avenue for relief for ongoing sexual harassment at work. When Sulatana refused to spend time with the General Manager outside working hours, she was fired in retaliation,” the Walmart report states. “Neither factory human resources nor the police provided viable pathways to accountability.”
So what are the solutions to this unchecked crisis? The researchers laid out a series of recommendations, and the International Labour Organization is currently convening to set the first international labor stands on violence and harassment in the workplace.
But the reports also serve as a reminder that when textile production moved overseas, it might have led to lower prices and fast fashion — but it came at a big cost.
American communities were hallowed out, and the workers who took their jobs throughout Asia are now forced to work unreasonably long hours for terrible pay and in terrible conditions. As these reports find, many of these workers face regular physical abuse and sexual harassment as well.
H&M, Gap and Walmart might be singled out in these reports, but they are hardly the only retailers who profit upon the cheap goods provided by the fast fashion global supply chain — and which depends upon the terrible mistreatment of its workers to survive. Retailers repeatedly have made promises to improve labor conditions, but it looks like they continue to break those promises.
So as big discussions about the future of trade continue, it’s important to remember that trade hasn't just led to lower consumer prices and increased company profit margins — it also led to the rise of sweatshop labor, workplace violence and even sexual abuse in countries around the world.