'Make environment of garment factories safe for women'

(L-R) Mujibul Haque, Shahidullah Azim, Mohammad Hatem and Maheen Sultan

A safe and discrimination-free workplace is necessary for the protection of women workers at garment factories and it is also necessary to strengthen the system of receiving complaints on various issues including sexual harassment at factories.

Besides, transportation must be arranged for safe communication of women workers as well as wage must be ensured during the maternity leave as per the labour law.

Speakers made these observations at a roundtable tiled “Safety of women workers in garment industry and institutional accountability” jointly organized by Shojag Coalition and Prothom Alo in association with European Union at Prothom Alo office in Karwan Bazar in Dhaka on Tuesday.

Shojag (awaken) is a coalition consisting of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), Naripokkho, and Christian Aid.

Speakers opined that there is no way to neglect any small issues at apparel factories considering the economic importance and large formal job sector for women.

They said the number of women workers is on the decline due to automation at the garment sector. Steps must be taken to increase production capacity to restore the previous number of women workers. The number of women workers must be increased at the leadership position at factories and rights to association must be ensured too.

Addressing the event as the chief guest, parliamentary standing committee chairman on labour and employment ministry, Mujibul Haque said once factory owners, workers and their leaders become aware, problems of garment factories will be resolved.

Foreign buyers emphasize on increasing facilities at factories, but they don’t want to increase price, he said adding all must work together to save factories.

Mujibul Haque said number of women workers must not decrease, and for that, a better environment has to be created at factories.

Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BGMEA) vice president Shahidullah Azim said factory authorities remain alert to prevent sexual harassment for the protection of women workers.

At present, women should at least begin their job with technical training in order to prevent the decline of women workers due to automation.

Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) executive president Mohammad Hatem said women workers are protected the most at garment factories among all other sectors and there is no chance of depriving fair wage and rights here.

Two separate keynote papers were presented at the roundtable.

Christian Aid Bangladesh gender equality and social inclusion department programme manager Anjum Nahed Chowdhury presented data from Shojag Coalition's ‘Promoting gender justice for women workers in the readymade garment sector and advocating women's safety during local commute and public spaces in Bangladesh’ project for three years.

They have been working with 50,000 workers at 30 factories under these programmes targeting to reach 151,633 workers directly by 2024.

Shojag Coalition team leader and Naripokkh member Maheen Sultan presented people’s perception on women garment workers and violence towards women from a small survey.

She said 56 per cent of respondents think it is more important for women to look after family and children than having a profession. There are also positive mindsets outside the traditional mindset.

96 per cent of respondents said both men and women should do household chores jointly; 74 per cent think women face sexual harassment in various forms at garment factory, and in that case more than half of the respondents advised to protest against it, report to police and factory authorities or complain to helpline.

Dhaka University economics professor Sayema Haque Bidisha emphasized increasing production capacity to restore the previous number of women workers. It is necessary to utilize the skill of middle-aged women to train new women workers, she added.

Bangladesh Garment Workers Trade Union Centre (GWTUC) general secretary Joly Talukder said most of the sexual harassment complaint committees do not function at garment factories. Women also dared not complain. On the one hand, number of women workers is decreasing, on the other hand, women are not seen at higher position, she added.

Interstoff Apparels Limited manager (compliance) Abu Bakar Siddique said efforts are underway to bring women to leadership position at factories and it is safer to have women leadership since women workers are more than men.

BLAST legal director Md Barkat Ali said factories must arrange transportation for workers and it is necessary to create such environment inside the factories where women workers can trust their male counterparts to do their jobs.

Naripokkh member Rowshan Ara said ways of protecting women must be found out by taking experiences into consideration.

International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Better Work Bangladesh Programme (BWB) training officer Afsana Chowdhury said only 10 per cent of women are in leadership position at garment factories and the ILO is emphasizing on identifying sexual harassment and discrimination at factories.

Thanking everyone Christian Aid country director Nuzhat Jabin said they can conduct more in-depth research on women garment workers if they get permission from the authorities concerned.

Prothom Alo associate editor Abdul Quayum delivered the welcome address saying if the country must lose economic facilities unless it pays attention to its women workers.

Prothom Alo assistant editor Firoz Choudhury moderated the event.