International Women’s Day 2021: Choose to challenge female harassment in supply chains

Published: 8 March 2021

Published: 8 March 2021

International Women’s Day 2021: Choose to challenge female harassment in supply chains

As part of our mission at ELEVATE we seek to deliver business-driven sustainability – and as a result, improve people’s lives and deliver positive lasting change across the value chain every day of the year. Days like International Women’s Day (IWD) enable us to stop and reflect that ELEVATE designs projects to disrupt gender inequality and end abusive working conditions to create safer, better, and more transparent supply chains all year.

On International Women’s Day 2021, ELEVATE is highlighting the work that we take part in every day and how we are supporting clients to address gender in the value chain to improve progress towards equality. We #ChoosetoChallenge – not just today, but every day – the gender bias and inequality in global supply chains through our worker engagement solutions that amplify worker voices and provide trusted channels for women (and all workers) to raise important issues, including harassment and gender-based violence (GBV).

Disrupting the prevalence of forced labor in the informal ready-made garment (RMG) sector in Bangladesh

ELEVATE is partnering with the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS) to address forced labor risks in Bangladesh. Through implementing worker voice tools such as surveys via Laborlink and tablets, we are able to collect feedback from workers in informal factories on labor conditions and, where possible, identify brands connected to subcontractor factories that employ forced labor. If victims of forced labor – including child laborers – are identified, they are referred to local organizations for support and skilling services to prevent re-victimization.

Our on-the-ground worker engagement has helped us to surface several key insights that shed light on the vulnerabilities of female workers in the informal RMG sector. Women in the informal sector are among the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in global supply chains due to the lack of oversight, regulation, and poor compliance levels:

  • Out of the total 6,698 surveys deployed to date in two factory clusters in Bangladesh (Keraniganj and Narayanganj), on average 22% of respondents have been identified as child laborers between 14 – 17 years of age, most of whom are girls.
  • In factories that manufacture for domestic brands, only 1 in 10 workers are female. However, 75% of all women surveyed were identified as being at risk of forced labor, compared to 56% of their male counterparts. This means female workers are 9% more likely to be working under exploitative situations related to forced labor.
  • Based on qualitative data collected by ELEVATE’s local partners, most female workers work as “helpers” while male workers are “operators”, which means women are performing lower-skilled jobs for a smaller salary and thus are more vulnerable to mistreatment and discrimination.
  • GBV in the form of physical and sexual harassment is not uncommon and has increased during the outbreak of COVID-19 due to lockdown measures and economic difficulties which contribute to female workers being trapped in these factories unable to return home or access already limited support services.

Providing a trusted and safe channel for workers to raise sensitive issues through the Amader Kotha Helpline

The Amader Kotha Helpline has reached over 1.5 million workers in Bangladesh in the RMG sector and beyond. The RMG sector in Bangladesh is driven largely by female workers, who make up approximately 61.2% of the workforce. However, the majority of women workers are relegated to lower-paid and lower-skilled roles, while men comprise a majority in supervisory and management roles. Harassment and abuse disproportionately affect women due to this management structure and gender dynamics within the workplace and within society as a whole.

The Helpline aims at providing a much-needed channel for workers to voice their concerns and access support to address gender-specific and sensitive issues, including GBV and sexual harassment. Through the implementation of a “reporting escrow”, which allows individuals to transmit sensitive information to a trusted third-party who only acts on the information under prespecified conditions, the Helpline is looking to further surface-sensitive issues that are currently underreported.

The reporting escrow can empower women and give them a voice to report GBV and sexual harassment without fear of retaliation or job loss. In turn, women employed in the RMG sector in Bangladesh can continue on a path of economic empowerment and influence gender norms within factories and potentially within society. Therefore, the cascading positive impact of changed behaviors amongst these workers and engaging in wider Bangladeshi society is very significant.

By providing a mechanism in which workers are undeterred from reporting sensitive issues related to GBV and sexual harassment, the issue is more likely to be addressed by factories. This in turn will build trust between workers and factory management and can therefore lead to wider positive outcomes not only for vulnerable workers but for factories as well – since worker well-being has been directly correlated to increased productivity and profitability. These impacts are in addition to the more immediate benefits – e.g. health and safety, mental and physical well-being, and increased agency – that result from a reduction of GBV and other sensitive issues for women and society generally.

Worker’s voice provides insights into sensitive issues in the supply chain

Women across global supply chains are less vocal and less likely to speak up and raise a grievance/complaint. Some of the most common reasons include not wanting to be seen as a victim, the humiliation and social stigma that comes from claims about sexual harassment, and fear of negative consequences like being alienated or fired and being blamed as the victim. In India, 1 in 4 female workers said they have experienced sexual harassment at work, and in Cambodia, 50% of female workers said they have experienced verbal abuse from their supervisors. Speaking up about these sensitive issues – particularly to a male supervisor – may present an impossible situation for female workers, which is why ELEVATE’s worker voice tools are an important aspect of addressing gender-sensitive issues.

A key element of ELEVATE’s integrated survey approach (audit with survey) that yields insights into sensitive topics is the use of Laborlink technology to collect anonymous data directly from workers’ mobile phones – in a safe, honest, and unbiased manner. According to qualitative and quantitative historical data, traditional audits surfaced only one sexual harassment finding per 10,000 audits. Based on ELEVATE Worker Sentiment Survey data, we have found as much as nine times greater disclosure on sensitive topics such as sexual harassment via mobile survey, compared to in-person interviews or live operators via a call center. Providing a safe means to raise sensitive topics empowers workers to speak up against harassment and abuse, and gives businesses the insight they need to take action.

ELEVATE Chooses to Challenge

It is beyond question that our industry can do a better job in choosing to challenge, uncover, remediate, and protect women in supply chains.

An important step in doing this is to focus on how factories address issues of gender-based abuse and harassment from a management systems perspective, specifically relating to:

  • Policies and procedures in place
  • Worker/worker committee engagement
  • Training and education
  • Internal monitoring and auditing
  • Enforcement and disciplinary guidelines

Using IWD as a chance to reflect, ask yourself four key questions about your responsible sourcing program:

  1. Does your responsible sourcing program go beyond traditional worker interviews to identify and manage sensitive topics that disproportionately impact women?
  2. Do you use gender-specific data and risk insight to ensure that your responsible sourcing program protects all workers – especially those who are most vulnerable including women
  3. Do you have gender-specific KPIs for supply chain disclosure – that are measured and reported on an annual basis?
  4. Do you track the benefits and returns of applying a gender lens to responsible sourcing, from the perspective of the suppliers, the business, and the women themselves?

For more information contact at [email protected]


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