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Surviving violence in a Bangladeshi garment factory

Laws against gender-based violence at work exist in Bangladesh, but their protective power is as thin as the paper they're printed on.

My name is Kalpona Akter, and I'm a labour activist. I organise garment workers back home in Bangladesh.

Penelope: And can you please tell us a little bit about why you think gender-based violence in the workplace is such a prevalent issue in the garment industry?

Kalpona: It's such a prevalent issue because the majority of them are women workers – the Bangladeshi garment industry is something like 15% men. It has become common, everyday, because the women do not speak out all the time and they are the majority. Everyone thinks women are weaker, so they can bear all these violences.

Penelope: What recourses do these women have at the moment, for instance to report sexual assault or other violations of their rights?

Everyone thinks women are weaker, so they can bear all these violences.

Kalpona: In the factory, I would say there is no mechanism to address or complain about these violences. Under national law women need to go to the police station. But, they need to go to many medical examinations, they need to go to police stations, where people are not friendly with women. Many times the women are fearful, because the people who do the violences are more powerful than these women. So that system really doesn't work.

Inside the factory, no mechanisms have really developed for women to be free to speak on that, or to complain – especially when it comes to gender-based violence. For others, they don't have a platform they can complain to. The law says they can organise unions, and join them, but they're not free to do that. So it is the absence of the freedom to organise and bargain, the absence of the implementation of law. The law is there, but the lack of enforced mechanisms is really preventing them to address all of these issues.

Kalpona Akter at London launch of flagship UN Women Report in 2015. UN Women/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Penelope: Does the architecture of supply chains – with layers of factories and sub-contractors – prevent transparency within such a system?

Kalpona: Supply chains are tricky things, and it's true that they have many layers. At the bottom are the workers, at the top are the consumers. Before them: the brands. And they don't have any responsibility for responding to the gender-based violence that exists in any of their suppliers' factories. I doubt they even think about it. It's so difficult for women or workers in the factory who face gender-based violence to report or bring these issues to the top of the supply chain.

Penelope: My final question is, what would an international framework look like for addressing gender-based violence at work and along the entire length of global supply chains?

Kalpona: At this moment we're looking for the International Labour Organisation to have a convention on eliminating gender-based violence in the workplace, and then to make every country ratify that. Based on that ratification, we can then ask the countries to adopt or write the necessary law to prevent gender-based violence in the workplace. So, the ILO, the business groups, and the unions need to come together and agree on an enforceable mechanism, which would be an ILO convention.

About the authors

Penelope Kyritsis is an assistant managing editor for Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. She holds a BA in Postcolonial Legal Studies from Brown University. Follow Penelope on Twitter @_penelopeCK.

Kalpona Akter is the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), one of Bangladesh's most prominent labor rights advocacy organisations, and is herself a former child garment worker.


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