#MeToo in the Supply Chain: Violence is a "Daily Reality" for Female Garment Workers

In light of widespread discussion about the #MeToo movement in the fashion industry, a significant segment of women have been overlooked in the effort against sexual harassment and assault: The women who make our clothing. However, a global coalition of trade unions, workers’ rights groups and human rights organizations is aiming to change that, releasing “a groundbreaking factory level research report” this week detailing gender-based violence in Walmart’s Asian garment supply chain.

The  report, which was compiled by the International Labour Organization (“ILO”), Asia Floor Wage Alliance, CENTRAL Cambodia, and Global Labor Justice, includes an investigation of gender-based violence in the Walmart garment supplier factories conducted between January 2018 and May 2018 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and West Java, Indonesia. The parties set out to document and understand the spectrum of gender based violence and associated risk factors at play in the global apparel manufacturing supply chain and to use their findings to address gender based violence through an ongoing approach that incorporates training on workplace violence, as well as national and international level advocacy.

Female garment laborers reported sexual harassment and violence, including physical violence, verbal abuse, coercion, threats and retaliation, as well as forced overtime, in connection with their work in factories that serve as suppliers for Walmart, as documented in the report, which builds upon a 2016 report documenting human rights violations in the U.S. discount retail giant’s global supply chain.

For instance, a woman named Sulatana, who is a former production-line manager in a Walmart supplier factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, told the ILO that one of her managers “offered me a salary increase and a promotion if I agreed [to engage in sexual relations with him]. When I did not, he threatened to fire me … The police refused to receive my complaint on the grounds that I had no authentic proof. A few days later, the General Manager [ordered] me to his office and asked me to resign immediately. When I approached Human Resources, I was told that the General Manager’s decision was final.”

Shahida, a 26-year-old sewing machine operator in a Walmart supplier factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, stated, “They shouted at me and bullied me. They called me names. I reported this to the factory manager, but he responded by raising my production targets. I couldn’t manage to work this way. In March 2018, before reaching my fifth year, I quit the job. It was exactly what they wanted. I resigned and they did not pay me the gratuity I had earned because they said I had resigned from the job myself.”

A woman worker from a former Walmart supplier factory in Kingsland Garment, Jakarta, Indonesia describes the physical impact of working long hours, seated, in a poorly ventilated factory: “At work I’m facing stomach pain, digestion and nose problems from sitting long hours working so much overtime, and working so many days. But sometimes I just have to forget my sickness because I have no money. I have to be the rock in the family.”

According to the ILO, “These are not isolated incidents, gender based violence in the Walmart garment supply chains is a direct result of how Walmart conducts business.” Tola Meun, Executive Director of CENTRAL, a local Cambodian NGO aimed at ensuring transparent and accountable governance for labor and human rights through legal aid and other appropriate means, echoed this notion, saying, “Gender based violence is a daily reality for women garment workers driven to meet unrealistic production targets in Walmart supply chains. Most of these cases are not reported due to fear of retaliation in the workplace.”

And Anannya Bhattacharjee, secretariat of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, stated in connection with the report that “Walmart, the trend-setter for lean supply chain management relies on women workers' gender-based exploitation in their supply chains to maximize their profits.”

The ILO says that it will now convene with “trade union leaders from around the world, along with governments and business to set international labor standards on gender based violence and create a global standard protecting women across sectors.”

The report, which was released this week, will serve “to inform this dialogue and to make sure the experience and recommendations of low wage women workers and the sectors and supply chains that rely on them are uplifted in order to create a strong framework guided by the leadership of trade unions and worker organizations that will provide employers, multinational enterprises, and governments a blueprint for eliminating gender based violence in the workplace.”

In addition to their impending alliance, the groups are asking that immediate action be taken by Walmart to end the violence and harassment that female garment workers are forced to endure daily.