#MeToo : the textile workers uniting against harassment
Eiahia Nakib for DOT
There are an estimated 2.5m textile workers – mostly women – working in more than 4,200 garment factories in Bangladesh. There remains very little focus on the gender-based violence and exploitation routinely faced by female workers. According to recent research, 80% of them either experience or witness sexual abuse or harassment at work. Yet few feel able to report this abuse or seek justice, reports The Guardian. Textile worker Dolly Akhtar was only 16 when she started work in a garment factory in Dhaka. She says this is down to a combination of deeply entrenched discrimination, a lack of female representation in political life and worker unions, and the shaming of women who come forward with claims of sexual assault. After facing sexual harassment she says. “I decided then that from now on I would only work on behalf of workers and never for management again.”
A decade later, Akhtar is at the forefront of a grassroots movement to try to expose the rampant sexual harassment, assault and exploitation that have become a mainstay of working life for women in Bangladesh’s textile industry
Since she left the garment factories in 2015 to become a full-time organizer for the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, one of Bangladesh’s largest trade organizations, Akhtar has become known for taking on sexual assault cases that other activists are hesitant to handle.
One of the women who have come to her for help is 20-year-old Hafsa Begum.
In May Begum had finished a night shift at her factory job in the capital, Dhaka, and was eager to get home after working overtime to fulfil orders ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
“I was extremely tired since I’d been working since eight o’clock in the morning and was walking slow. The other girls walked ahead of me and that’s when my line manager seized the opportunity. I kicked and slapped him but he still managed to drag me into a dark alley next to the factory,” Begum explained. She says he forcefully kissed and touched her. Before letting her go, the line manager told her, “I told you, you’re going to be mine.
“He asked me to go out with him. When I said no … he began to make my life hell,” Begum says. The more she resisted his advances, the more dangerous his threats became. He warned her that if she didn’t have sex with him he would make sure she would lose her job.
The morning after the assault Begum didn’t go to work. “I was so scared, I didn’t know what to do.” Then she remembered Akhtar. “I’d heard there was a woman, a union organiser, that helped factory girls who had been abused,” she says.
Bangladesh’s High Court Division of the Supreme Court issued detailed guidelines against sexual harassment at work in 2009, but there is no process in place where workers can complain without retaliation.
Factory owners are invested in keeping experienced managers around because it’s hard to find skilled people for those roles, whereas machine operators and workers are easy to replace.
She has worked on dozens of sexual harassment cases over the last five years, often meeting victims in secret so there is less of a chance of being seen by others in the community.