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Weaving resistance against sexual harassment

Jul 14, 2015

Women workers in the garment industry talk about the stigmas and vulnerabilities that stalk their profession in India.

New Delhi: Anju began working as a tailor in a garment factory in 2013 when a quality checker there started pressurising her for sexual favours. She resisted his advances till one day as she was going to the washroom, she oversaw him hand over Rs 500 to the line in-charge and say, ‘either you violate Anju’s honour or else throw her out of the factory’. When she confronted both men they denied this but from then on they started setting high production targets for her and repeatedly pointing out mistakes in her work. After several months of taking in the harassment quietly when the duo passed a lewd comment on her she retaliated in anger. Eventually, she lost her job… Sexual harassment in the workplace is a lived reality for many garment workers like Anju. And yet, these women can’t really speak up or seek redress because of social stigmas as well as poor enforcement of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013. ‘Struggle within the Struggle: Voices of Women Garment Workers’, a study by the Society for Labour and Development details the experiences and insecurities of women on the shop floor.

Lalita is a garment worker, who is well into her forties, and has been working in the industry for the past six years. She narrates an incident wherein a man followed her into the washroom, mistaking her to be some other young woman. When she opened the door of the washroom and he saw her, he ran away. She complained about this incident to the management, arguing that the person concerned had worked in the company for long enough to know the location of the women's washroom, and that such behaviour was unacceptable. The company instead fired her.

The management told me that you are maligning someone’s image, and therefore, please take all your dues and leave. If anything happens, then it is always the woman who is blamed (Lalita, tailor).

Prerna is a garment worker who has been doing tailoring work in Gurgaon since the past four years. Prior to working as a tailor, she had worked in the sampling department of a garment factory in West Delhi. She has undertaken different kinds of work in the garment industry, from working as a guard worker in a garment factory to being a supervisor of thread-cutting and checking. She is extremely vocal about the incidences of sexual harassment in garment industries, and narrates to us the following account from one of her former workplaces:

There was an in-charge in the factory, who would say to everyone, old or young, that I have fallen in love with you. Once he said that to me as well I said, Sir, what is the meaning of sir? Sir is used to address a senior, I respect you. Magar ek haath se taali nahi bajti hai (But it is not possible to clap with one hand). If I don’t fall in love with you, then there is no meaning in you falling in love with me. Then he asked me to think over this matter. After some time, he said something else which I could not tolerate, so I answered him back firmly. If I am new to a place, I would keep quiet, but gradually, as I become older, I cannot keep quiet. Then one day the same senior said to me, “I am giving you a break, come back after a week”. I thought to myself, never in my life will I return to work in your company, and so never returned to this factory again.

What is clearly implied in the above mentioned incident between Prerna and her in-charge is that to survive in the factory, the former needs to agree to the demands of the latter, failing which she may leave the job. The in-charge, while not asking her to leave directly, inherently signaled this through the medium of the ‘break’. That Prerna never chose to return after the break serves to further strengthen the premise that the in-charge was being sexually coercive and gave no choice to the woman worker. She needs to follow his diktat or else find another job elsewhere.

When we asked women workers if they were aware about the enactment of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, and that every workplace is required to constitute an internal complaints committee under this law, all of them responded in the negative. Workers, however, did mention about speaking to the management, in particular, the human resource department, about sexual harassment issues, but to no avail. The following responses by Anusha and Sarita highlight the state of the law in practice.

Dekho niyam toh saare bante hain, par vahan tak koi pohonch nahi pata. (See, the rules are all formulated but these don't reach the people). If we complain, then they will comment “only you seem to have a problem, the rest of the women don't, why don't you leave? That man (referring to the culprit) has been working here for so many years, no one before you has complained against him”. At other times if a complaint is made, then the in-charge will accuse the women worker by saying, “this woman does not know how to work, she is no good”. The person against whom we raise a complaint will thereafter be hounding us with vengeance and he won't let us work peacefully. (Anusha, tailor).

An air of suppression around speaking up on these issues prevails, and even though legal avenues might exist, in practice, as Anusha argues, it is very difficult for women to make use of the law, as their voices of protest are drowned out, and instead questions on the credibility of the woman are raised. Further, as Anju's case tells us, women who resist sexual harassment not only have to deal with job loss and social stigma, the incidences of sexual assault and intimidation continue even outside the workplace. Anju's testimony corroborates what Siddiqi (2003) has argued on the relationship between workplace harassment and harassment in public spaces:

The fear of retaliation outside the workplace also constrains women's responses. There is a straightforward relationship between sexual intimidation or annoyance in the workplace and the general insecurity of women in the public sphere. Women who are harassed by co workers inside the factory must think twice about taking their complaints to the management because of threats of physical and social retaliation outside the workplace. For them, the only option may be to submit silently or find alternative employment.

Social stigma and notions surrounding women garment workers

Sonal, who has been working as a tailor in a garment factory for the past five years, shares with us that she feels ashamed to tell people about her occupation as a garment worker, and hides it most of the time.

My father also does not like this work; he says that the export line is not good I don't know why, but everyone says that women who work in the export line are immoral. I hesitate in telling anyone that I work in this sector. I undertake two different kinds of work - I work in the garment factory, but I am also an SBI agent. If I am at some social gathering, then I never tell people about my garment work, as everyone will look at me negatively. No matter how good someone is, they will still look at them in a negative way.

The fear that people would cast doubts over the sexuality of the women who work in the garment industry is also voiced by Lakshmi, who notes:

We get to hear often and many people do remark that those who have entered the export line are no longer pavitr (pure). If we tell anyone that we work in an export factory, then they tend not to think well about us, as if we are women of some strange disrepute.

The narratives above tell us that female garment workers not only have to struggle with the sexualization of their workplaces, but also have to deal with social stigma and prevailing notions of women in the garment factories as morally of questionable status, sexually loose, and impure etc.

The sexual harassment of garment workers goes far beyond the workplace, and hinders their mobility and respectability in the public sphere.

(Excerpted from: Struggle within the Struggle: Voices of Women Garment Workers; A Study by the Society for Labour and Development)

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