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80% of garment workers in Bangladesh have experienced or witnessed sexual violence and harassment at work

Woman sewing at a garment factory in Bangladesh

New research: 80% of garment workers in Bangladesh have experienced or witnessed sexual violence and harassment at work, with 90% saying their job is negatively impacting their health.

Governments, employers and trade unions are negotiating the first ever international law on ending violence and harassment in the world of work at the International Labour Conference (ILC) in Geneva. ActionAid is calling on all parties to agree a strong, binding treaty that protects women and other marginalised workers. 

Witnessing a colleague sexually assaulted on the factory floor, women abused for not meeting targets and another fired for being pregnant – these are just some of the shocking experiences of violence and harassment garment workers in Bangladesh have shared with ActionAid.

The global justice organisation’s survey of 200 garment factory workers*, including 181 women, in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, found that 80% said they had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment and abuse at work. Ten per cent of women surveyed said they were currently being subjected to sexual harassment, molestation and assault in the workplace.

ActionAid is releasing the findings at the start of the International Labour Conference in Geneva to demand that governments and employers adopt a strong, international law that respects and protects the rights of women and ends violence and harassment at work.  

It comes as an online poll of nearly 7,000 adults in the UK, Australia, Sweden, the US, Ireland and the Netherlands*, carried out by YouGov on behalf of ActionAid, finds that the majority (61%) believe that governments (22%) and the companies selling clothes (39%) are responsible for ensuring clothes are produced in an ethical way. Ethical is defined in the survey as factories where workers are paid a living wage and work in decent conditions, free from violence and harassment.

Seventy-one per cent of adults in the countries surveyed describe themselves as feminists* and are clearly concerned about inequality in global supply chains.

Yet, just nine per cent currently buy ethical clothing – primarily because of the difficulty and expense of identifying brands that treat workers fairly.

After being shown facts about the shocking conditions women workers face globally, 41% said they could not afford to buy ethical clothes, which increases to 55% among 18 to 24-year-olds, and most (61%) of all those surveyed said they struggle to know which brands are ethical. 

Speaking from the ILC in Geneva, Dinah Fuentesfina, campaigns manager at ActionAid International, says:

“Consumers want a level playing field so that all companies, not just those that charge a premium for ethical goods, have to follow the same rules to end violence against women at work.

“Twenty years ago, a landmark International Labour Organisation treaty forced companies to root out child labour from their global supply chains, now it’s time to do the same to stamp out the epidemic of violence and harassment against women workers.”

ActionAid’s research finds that 74% of consumers wouldn’t work somewhere where workers face gender-based violence and 79% would be unwilling to work in unsafe buildings, left in a state of total disrepair.

But garment workers in Bangladesh face these conditions on a daily basis. Six years after the Rana Plaza tragedy that killed more than 1,100 garment workers, all those surveyed reported some level of concern over safety in or around their workplace. Ninety per cent said their jobs were impacting their heath, with issues including damaged eyesight, injuries to hands and feet, severe back pain, exhaustion and depression.

Farah Kabir, country director of ActionAid Bangladesh, says: 

“Many garment manufacturers are taking important steps to improve building safety. Now it is time to tackle the gender-based violence that is still a daily reality for many of the women who make the clothes we wear.

“Governments and employers in Geneva this week can change that by backing legislation to protect all women, regardless of where they work, and make sexual violence and harassment unacceptable in any workplace, anywhere.” 

Garment worker stories: “This piece of cloth is bathed in my blood, sweat and dignity”

Shopna has been a garment worker for 16 years and now operates a sewing machine. Over the years, she says, she has experienced many unwanted sexual advances and witnessed incidents of assault on other women by men in positions of authority.

She had a powerful message for the people who buy the clothes she makes:

“It makes me happy that they are wearing something that I made. 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 that you will wear and feel comfortable.”

Shopna faced harassment from a factory manager who would make inappropriate comments and touch 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.

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

Many of the workers surveyed reported being grabbed, groped and hit on the head for not meeting their targets. One woman, Parul, said that one day something “indecent” happened while most other workers were out for lunch. It is understood that a woman was sexually assaulted on the factory floor.

Another woman said:

“If we are unable to meet the required state of production, the supervisor swears at us, beats us, or proposes something revolting. If we do not comply then we are harassed repeatedly, verbally and digitally [via mobile phone].”

Many said they complained about the behaviour of male supervisors, but nothing was done to address their behaviour.  

“They grope and push us when we are unable to meet the production target,” one woman said.

“They also swear a lot. We complained to the [manager], who also didn’t pay any heed and in turn swore at us too and threatened to throw us out. We all wish to continue working only for the sake of our family. If they stop this then we can work peacefully.”

Notes to editors

For more information contact Jenna Pudelek in the ActionAid press office on +44(0)7795642990 or email jenna.pudelek@actionaid.org.

  • ActionAid’s full analysis of the survey of garment workers in Bangladesh is available on request.
  • Pseudonyms have been used to protect women workers’ identities.  
  • ActionAid commissioned the Centre for Development Communications to survey 200 garment workers in May 2019. ActionAid International worked closely with colleagues at ActionAid Bangladesh to ensure that the survey of garment workers was carried out in a sensitive way that was mindful of the harrowing experiences they were being asked to share and recognises that asking questions about this subject area can be re-traumatising. The workers were briefed about the content of the questionnaire before taking part, offered the choice not to answer any questions they found distressing, and those who had experienced or were still experiencing sexual violence and harassment were given information about services that could support them. The workers who took part attend Workers’ Cafés, supported by ActionAid Bangladesh in Dhaka where they receive information and support about their rights.
  • The survey used the World Health Organisation definition of sexual violence, also sometimes described as gender-based violence: “Any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.”
  • YouGov carried out online surveys of 6,958 adults, on behalf of ActionAid, between 20 and 30 May 2019, in the UK (2,187), Ireland (516), the Netherlands (1,018), Sweden (1,016), the USA (1,224) and Australia (997).
  • A feminist is defined as someone who believes that women should be treated equally to men.