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'This piece of cloth is bathed in my blood, sweat and dignity': The fight to improve the lives of garment workers

The majority of Irish people care about the conditions of the factories where their clothes are made.

Garment workers protest in front of Press Club in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2015.
Garment workers protest in front of Press Club in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2015.
Image: Asad Mohammad/ABACA/PA Images

A SIGNIFICANT MAJORITY of workers in garment factories in Bangladesh have experienced or witnessed some form of sexual harassment while at work, a new survey has shown.

International human rights and justice charity Action Aid carried out a survey of 200 garment factory workers – including 181 women – in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. 

It found that 80% said they had witnessed sexual harassment and/or abuse at work. Examples include witnessing a colleague sexually assaulted on the factory floor, women abused for not meeting targets and someone being fired for being pregnant. 

ActionAid also carried out a survey of just under 7,000 consumers in Europe, America and Australia (including 516 Irish consumers) on their views and opinions on the garment industry.

It found that 82% of Irish people said they care about the conditions of the factories where their clothes are made, but 65% said it’s hard to know which brands are ethical. 

The vast majority (82%) of Irish consumers said that if a clothing brand was exposed in the media because its clothes are made in factories where women face sexual violence and harassment, they would stop shopping there immediately.

The survey also found that  only 37 per cent of Irish people knew that there is currently no law at an international level to eradicate gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work.

It also showed that 73% of Irish consumers wouldn’t work somewhere where workers face gender-based violence and 80% would be unwilling to work in unsafe buildings.

Lives of garment workers

According to ActionAid, garment workers in Bangladesh face unsafe conditions and harassment at work on a daily basis. 

Many factories are highly unsafe to work in. The clothes produced in these factories end up in popular high street stores in Ireland, the UK and across Europe, America and other areas. 

Sometimes, this ends in instant tragedy, as was the case with the April 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, which led to the deaths of 1,134 people. The collapse was dubbed “mass industrial homicide” by workers’ unions. 

The tragedy forced many retailers to pledge to work to improve conditions at their factories, however six years later ActionAid says that many issues still remain in the sector, particularly around workers’ rights.

Action Aid highlighted the case of one worker, Shopna*, who has been a garment worker for 16 years and now operates a sewing machine.

She said she had experienced many unwanted sexual advances and witnessed incidents of assault on other women by men in positions of authority over the years.

“It makes me happy that they are wearing something that I made,” Shopna said, addressing people who wears her clothes.

“But I want to let them know that this is more than a piece of cloth.

“This piece of cloth is bathed in my blood, sweat and dignity. I’ve sacrificed all of that to be able to make a pair of pants [trousers] that you will wear and feel comfortable.

Shopna said she was harassed by a factory manager who regularly made inappropriate comments and touched her. He repeatedly asked her to stay back after work, but she refused. One morning when she was in earlier than other workers, he violently attacked her, Shona said.

ActionAid’s survey found 72% of the respondents said they had been subjected to extreme verbal abuse at work.

International Labour Conference

The 108th Session of the International Labour Conference kicked off yesterday in Geneva. ActionAid said that governments, employers and trade unions are negotiating the first ever international law on ending violence and harassment at work.

“Governments and employers now have the opportunity to act by voting in favour of the first international law to tackle gender-based violence in the world of work,” ActionAid Ireland CEO Siobhan McGee said. 

“Right now, 59 countries still have no national laws against violence and harassment at work, and so a progressive, binding, global treaty is the only way to protect women and other marginalised workers.

“Consumers, hit by austerity measures and rising global inequality, face tough choices when the only clothes they can afford are cheap, fast fashion that puts garment workers at risk of abuse.

It’s up to brands and governments to ensure that the decision to buy ethical clothing is not only a choice the rich can make.” 

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Cormac Fitzgerald

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