This week marks three years since the most horrific tragedy in the history of the global apparel industry - the collapse of the Rana Plaza factories in Bangladesh that killed 1,134 workers and caused hundreds of others to lose a limb or suffer long-term injuries.
Much as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York inspired labor law reforms in the United States, 105 years ago, we need to ensure the Rana Plaza collapse has the same effect on how global supply chains are regulated. While a compensation fund was secured for the victims, the right to freedom of association is far from being respected in Bangladesh.
The Triangle fire galvanized coalitions of women suffragists to join garment workers in demanding change. Francis Perkins witnessed the tragedy in New York and dedicated her life to workers’ rights, becoming the first female Secretary of Labor in the US and an iconic worker advocate.
Today, we need to build up those same kinds of coalitions so that women’s rights advocates join with worker advocates to ensure the rights of workers and a more just society overall. There is no denying that the global pressures that keep wages low and working conditions often abysmal in global supply chains affect both men and women alike. But it is no coincidence that the workers in many women-dominated industries have struggled to organize and demand better wages. Just ask the fight for $15 in the United States: the National Women’s Law Center reports that nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women and two-thirds of tip workers are women.
The struggle for justice in the apparel industry is no different. Recent research conducted by my organization, the International Labor Rights Forum, along with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, documented the different ways in which women workers especially are intimidated and harassed sexually and in other violent ways in order to keep them from organizing and demanding safety and better terms of employment. Even the men we interviewed acknowledged that their female coworkers were under more duress than they were. The research, based on 70 long-form interviews with garment workers and organizers from the apparel industry in Bangladesh, explains in garment workers’ own words how they are intimidated, harassed, beaten and sexually abused in order to keep them from speaking up at work. The women workers we interviewed also explained how the violence and intimidation doesn’t end at work. They reported that it is very common for managers to threaten they will send thugs after them. Far from an empty threat, some of the most violent beatings of worker organizers have taken place against women workers, in their communities or when they are leaving work. Finally, women often do not have the support of their families and some reported being beaten for getting involved in union organizing.
Sadly, this phenomenon is not unique to the apparel industry or to Bangladesh, but something that has been documented by apparel worker organizers from Cambodia to Honduras and by agricultural worker organizers as well. Women who work in U.S. agriculture refer to the fields in the US as ‘the green motel’ in reference to how common sexual harassment and rape are in the fields. Nearly 40 percent of California female farmworkers surveyed in a UC Santa Cruz study said they had been sexual harassed on the job.
A new congressional initiative being promoted by Representatives Speier and Schakowsky and Senators Murray, Brown, Feinstein, Markey, and Mikulski is an important step in building the kind of coalition we need to address the deep-seated problems in the much more diffuse supply chains of today, particularly in the industries where women workers make up a significant part of the workforce, such as the apparel industry, cut flowers, and tea, to name a few. This initiative has the potential to drive better U.S. development policies that invest in women workers’ leadership in organizing trade unions and actively remove the particular obstacles preventing women from organizing or raising safety concerns at work.
Industry reforms need to include a new approach that empowers workers to speak out and protects their rights to organize without fear of reprisals. These reforms need to incorporate additional measures to address the particular challenges that women workers face. Businesses need to recognize how gender-based violence at work undermines all other safety and compliance initiatives. A woman who is groped or sexually harassed by a male manager is less likely to step up to be a voice for safety and dignity at work.
We need clear protections with the force of law, protections against reprisals for those who raise concerns, and support for community-based organizations that stand with and are led by women workers.