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Global firms who want to be industry leaders by taking a stand against forced labour must do more than adopt principles- they must practice what they preach

 

Tom Hunt, Genevieve LeBaron, Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum | University of Sheffield

Original Post at Thomson Reuters Foundation News

*Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Tom Hunt is deputy director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) at the University of Sheffield.

Genevieve LeBaron is professor of politics and co-director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) at the University of Sheffield.

Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum is the U.S. director for Global Labor Justice. She is also a lecturer in law at the Harvard Law School and co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Immigration and Human Trafficking Committee. 

Let us introduce you to two workers. Their work is physically demanding and at times unsafe. The hours are irregular and their low pay isn’t enough to live on. Both workers have taken loans from their employer to get through tough periods. Interest rates and fees are high and repayments further shrink their pay. They are trapped in a vicious low-pay debt trap: not paid enough, indebted, and unable to leave. One is a tea worker on a plantation in India. The other works for Marriott International in the USA cleaning hotel rooms. Both workers deserve decent work and economic stability. Both cases require new forms of corporate accountability.

For the last few years, we’ve investigated debt bondage by studying the global tea and cocoa industries. Our survey work reveals patterns of forced labour at the base of supply chains of large multi-national corporations, including forms of debt bondage, an internationally recognised type of forced labour. We found highly exploited tea workers in India unable to exit plantations due to debts from usurious loans from employers. Over half of the tea workers we surveyed had borrowed money and over half had no savings. Deep poverty and racial inequality combined with low pay leaves labourers reliant on exploitative employers just to survive.

Hotel workers at Marriott International, the world’s largest and richest hotel chain, are now drawing attention to similar practices in the U.S. Under a slogan of ‘One job should be enough’ members of the UNITE HERE union have taken industrial action to demand a living wage and safe conditions. The strike has highlighted an additional factor that puts some of Marriott’s predominantly black and Latino workforce in an even worse situation: fees and interest payments from the Marriott Employees Federal Credit Union(MEFCU), an officially independent credit union but which is led by senior Marriott executives.

class action lawsuit alleges that MEFCU, in violation of US lending law, doesn’t inform its members – who are employees at Marriott International and other companies- about the true cost of its ‘mini-loans’. The plaintiffs allege that when application fees are added to the interest rate, the mini-loans of up to $500 have an APR of 46%, way above the advertised 18%. In 2017 MEFCU charged ‘more in fees for every dollar loaned than any other credit union of its membership type’.

Court papers argue that “while the mini-loan may appear to be a free-standing financial product, it is part-and-parcel of the unequal bargaining relationship between the Marriott and its employees.” Here is the crux of it: instead of getting regular shifts and stable wages, Marriott workers are offered quick high-cost loans with repayments deducted from their pay.

These are red flags for forced labour.

This matters because our research reveals there is a porous boundary between someone being a victim of forced labour and a worker subjected to lesser and more routine forms of exploitation. An unexpected hospital bill or a drop in scheduled working hours could be the trigger that sees a desperate, impoverished worker borrow money and cross that boundary. US workers’ action, court cases, and media reports raise serious concerns that the business model at Marriott is configured around labour exploitation, which in severe cases, is likely to cross the line into forced labour.

Global firms like Marriott who want to be industry leaders by taking a stand against forced labour must do more than adopt principles- they must practice what they preach. The International Labour Organization has adopted global labour standards including on forced labour prevention and guidelines on promotion of decent work and sustainable tourism agreed to by governments, employers, and worker organizations from around the world. It is highly questionable whether Marriott’s actions are sufficient to prevent forced labour and promote decent work in the US and its global expansion.

In some U.S. hotels, Marriott continues to use temporary foreign worker programs where workers pay fees to obtain the jobs and have limited mobility.  Unions and NGOs have filed complaints that Marriott projects in India and Bangladesh breach labor standards leaving many workers subject to poverty wages, and fearing retaliation if they report violations or join a union. Marriott has refused to negotiate with the IUF union on a global framework agreement to protect workers from sexual harassment and gender-based violence. And in the UK in 2017 Marriott underpaid 279 minimum wage workers by £71,722.93.

Government, business, and activists fighting forced labour should take note of the issues Marriott workers are raising across the globe. Dynamics of exploitation typical of debt bondage and forced labour continue to exist. If Marriott really wants tackle forced labour at home and overseas there is lots it can do. Prioritizing paying living wages, preventing wage theft, gender based violence and unfair labour practices, and engaging trade unions as a core partner would be a real plan to prevent forced labour – wherever the workers are.

Aaron Halegua, Jennifer Rosenbaum and Mariam Bhacker

Original Post at Marianas Variety

*Any views expressed in this article are those of the author.

 

WE are individuals and groups concerned by the labor abuses that transpired at the Imperial Pacific construction site.

The confiscation of worker passports, failure to pay workers the minimum wage, high rates of injury and even deaths, and retaliation against complaining workers have all been well-documented. In order to prevent future exploitation, we support the proposal to establish an independent and transparent monitoring mechanism in which the voice of workers and their representatives plays a crucial role.

Imperial Pacific promises that the situation has been remedied because it terminated the previous contractors. In fact, a significant risk remains. As the Financial Times recently noted, the construction industry as a whole is a “particularly high-risk sector for worker exploitation.” Further, Imperial Pacific’s workforce now primarily consists of foreign H-2B workers. Not surprisingly, this program that allows companies to bring in cheaper, short-term workers is rife with abuse. From 2010 and 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor identified nearly 1,000 employers that violated H-2 laws. Moreover, statistics reveal that immigrant construction workers are more likely to get injured.

In other contexts where serious worker abuse was discovered, an independent monitoring mechanism was established to ensure compliance with labor and safety rules. An example of this is the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, negotiated after the Rana Plaza factory collapsed killing over 1,100 workers, in which clothing retailers agreed to establish an independent monitoring regime overseen by a steering committee comprised of brands, global unions, and neutral experts. In Qatar, upon reports of  widespread abuse of foreign workers building sites for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the local organizing committee established a monitoring framework to ensure contractors’ compliance with a set of worker protection standards. As part of the auditing regime, an independent monitor was hired to assess companies’ compliance with the standards and an agreement was concluded with the global union, Building and Wood Workers’ International, to jointly conduct health and safety inspections. In both examples, a central tenant of promoting transparency and accountability is that reports by the monitoring bodies are made public.

The logic underlying these programs is simple: we cannot rely on companies to police themselves and the actors at the top of the supply chain or construction project must use their leverage to ensure compliance by subcontractors. Further, government enforcement agencies have limited resources to detect violations, let alone prevent them.

If Imperial Pacific is serious about eradicating abuse from its projects, it too should conclude a binding agreement requiring that its contractors adhere to specific local, national and international standards on labor, safety, and human rights. An independent party should conduct regular audits and publish the results. Any violations should trigger defined, mandatory penalties. Worker organizations should also be permitted to educate employees in their native language about worker rights, grievance mechanisms, and protections from retaliation. The specifics should be negotiated with organizations that genuinely represent worker interests, who then play an ongoing role in ensuring its rigorous implementation and impact on workplace standards.

These proposals are not radical steps. They are recognized “best practices” emerging in the construction sector and established in other industries. Imperial Pacific should embrace this opportunity to join firms that are leading their industries in ensuring workers’ rights and safety.

But Imperial Pacific must not be allowed to simply monitor itself — the Commonwealth’s recent experience in construction and long experience with the garment sector show this to be true. The CNMI government is aware of the need for meaningful oversight and should take this opportunity to turn the industry around. Government authorities told the U.S. Congress, international media, and other stakeholders that CNMI is committed to protecting workers. It is time to make good on these statements by requiring Imperial Pacific to establish a negotiated, transparent and independent monitoring program as a condition for continuing operations in the CNMI.

Aaron Halegua is research fellow of the New York University School of Law. This opinion is submitted in his personal capacity and not as a representative of New York University.

Jennifer Rosenbaum is with Global Labor Justice while Mariam Bhacker is with Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Sarah David Heydemann

Original Post at the National Women’s Law Center

*Any views expressed in this article are those of the author.

 

Responding to employee pressure in the #metoo era, companies across nearly every industry are looking into measures to better prevent and respond to workplace discrimination and harassment. From mandating anti-bias training to banning pre-employment non-disclosure provisions, to instituting more robust reporting systems – workplaces across the United States are slowly implementing internal reforms to better protect their workers. While compliance with the law is essential, many anti-discrimination laws have significant gaps in protections, and so companies’ policies and practices that go beyond the minimum protections provided for under the law are critical. 

But these policies and legal protections shouldn’t be limited to workers within company headquarters. Indeed, they should ripple out to warehouses, factory floors, and even beyond U.S. borders throughout company supply chains. The #metoo movement is global, and the response should be global as well.

This is the message being amplified by workers and unions from around the globe who recently met in Geneva at the International Labor Organization (ILO) to begin a two-year, tripartite negotiation process between unions, employers and governments to develop an international standard focused on gender-based violence in the world of work. After the negotiations, participants will vote –a two-third majority of votes is required – to adopt a standard. Standards can take two forms; conventions and recommendations. Conventions are legally binding and may be ratified by each ILO member state. Once ratified, conventions come into force like laws in the countries where they have been ratified. Recommendations are non-binding guidelines. While they have less power than conventions, they are nonetheless important for setting strong global standards. If adopted, this will be the first ILO standard to address both gender based violence and workplace rights, and is especially important to advancing a global movement against gender-based violence at work in countries that lack their own legal protections. A recent ILO study on violence and harassment at work revealed that 20 of 80 countries surveyedhad no laws to protect workers from retaliation if they reported sexual harassment, and 19 did not even have a legal definition of sexual harassment at work.

In the midst of the ILO negotiation, Global Labor Justice, along with many partners, released three new reports on gender-based violence along the H&M, Gap and Walmart supply chains. These reports are the result of years of work and hundreds of conversations with the workers – a disproportionate number of whom are women – who work in garment supply chains. They detail stories of harassment, abuse, and physical violence among women working in those supply chains. These stories are similar to the ones we have heard from women like Gina Pitre, who was sexually harassed at a Walmart in Mississippi and found an attorney through our Legal Network for Gender Equity. For workers here and abroad, women experience a lack of power and control at work that leaves them acutely vulnerable to abuse. Then when abuse occurs, they often have nowhere to turn.

After the release of the reports, Gap and H&M quickly announced that they would investigate the abuses detailed in Global Labor Justices report, and have since become the first brands in the garment sector – or any other sector where women dominate the supply chain– to publicly support the adoption of an ILO Convention on gender based violence.

Unlike H&M and Gap, Walmart has remained silent. Walmart is the world’s largest private employer, and as such, has immense power to influence the business community and the lives of millions of workers when it comes to the policies that they adopt to prevent and address gender based violence in the workplace – both here and abroad. Gender based violence can take many forms. One of the most common is harassment and violence against female employees because they are pregnant. In the United States, when a woman is discriminated against because she is pregnant at work, it is a form of sex discrimination. Listening to the stories of pregnancy discrimination from people who work for Walmart from around the world highlights the need for a global response to the global problem of gender based violence.

At the National Women’s Law Center, we are representing a class of women, along with co-counsel A Better Balance and Mehri & Skalet, who are fighting back against Walmart as a result of the pregnancy discrimination they faced as Walmart employees. The story of one of these women was recently featured in the New York Times.Compare Otisha Woolbright’s story:

“In Jacksonville, Florida, Otisha Woolbright… work[ed] in the deli and bakery at Walmart. After she experienced pain and bleeding early in her pregnancy, her doctor advised her to avoid heavy lifting, but her supervisor told her that if she couldn’t do heavy lifting she could “walk out those doors” and that pregnancy was “no excuse.”  Shortly thereafter, she injured herself doing the exact sort of heavy lifting she had sought to avoid; only then, after she had been hurt because of Walmart’s failure to accommodate her restrictions, did Walmart provide her with job duties that did not include lifting, because she then had an on-the-job injury.  A few months later, immediately after she asked about Walmart’s policies around taking time off for childbirth, Otisha was fired.”

With that of women in Cambodia:

“As early as 2012, workers organizations in Cambodia began reporting that pregnant women were regularly threatened with dismissal from garment manufacturing jobs. This led many women to terminate pregnancies in order to keep their jobs. Women also force themselves to work until the very last day before the delivery, putting their own lives at risk. Most women. . . do not get their contracts renewed after they go on maternity leave.”

It is striking that pregnant women thousands of miles apart are facing similar forms of discriminatory treatment while working for Walmart.

Walmart has now begun responding to the pressure of our lawsuit by quietly changing its pregnancy accommodations policy – but the fight is far from over. Just as Walmart has begun to respond to employee advocacy and legal pressure for workers in the United States – so too should they be responsive to workers along their supply chains. All companies have a responsibility to each of the women they employ to make their workplaces respectful, dignified, and free from violence and discrimination.

As evidenced by both our work and these new reports, an ILO convention is needed to bring to light gender based violence against women that spans borders, and to give advocates and workers the framework and the tools needed to confront violence against women at work as a global phenomenon.

Jennifer Rosenbaum & Shikha Silliman BhattacharjeeopenDemocracy

Original Post at Truth Out

*Any views expressed in this article are those of the authors.

In the last week of May and first week of June 2018, trade unions, governments, and employers convened at the International Labor Organization’s 107th Session of the International Labour Conference in Geneva to negotiate an international standard on gender-based violence. The ILO Tripartite Committee ultimately decided to move forward towards trying to adopt a convention and recommendation at the close of negotiations in 2019. However, the position of employers at the negotiating table remained ambivalent and the voice of multinational brands was missing.

Despite research by the ILO and others showing patterns of gender-based violence across global value chains and sectors including garmenthospitalitydomestic work, and others, only a handful of corporate voiceshave spoken out in support of a convention – most recently from Gap and H&M. Indeed, the move toward a convention was adopted over the objection of employers.

Newly released research by the Asia Floor Wage AllianceGlobal Labor Justice, and partners shows the importance of brands and employers joining with unions and governments to support a strong convention. Research findings call for brands to recognize violence and harassment and take steps to end these violations through an approach that brings worker organizations to the table.

The Spectrum of Gender-Based Violence at Work

In her piece, “From #metoo to a global convention on sexual harassment at work”, Cathy Feingold, the global director for the AFL-CIO, laid out the important initiative trade unions have taken to bring gender-based violence to the top of the ILO’s agenda. Additionally, their work has negotiated a strong convention that provides a framework for trade unions, employers, and governments to each play a role in eliminating gender-based violence in the workplace, broadly defined, and to strengthen freedom of association and worker organizations in critical ways.

On 25 May 2018, our global coalition of trade unions, worker rights and human rights organizations, released new, factory level research detailing gender-based violence in GapH&M, and Walmart’s Asian garment supply chains. This report provides an empirical account of the spectrum of gender-based violence and risk factors for violence that women workers face in garment supply chains. This includes findings from a new investigation of gender-based violence in GapH&M, andWalmart’s garment supply chains, conducted between January 2018 and May 2018 in Dhaka, Bangladesh; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; West Java and North Jakarta, Indonesia; Bangalore, Gurgaon, and Tiruppur, India; and in Gapaha District and Vavuniya District, Sri Lanka.

The data was collected through focus group discussions with 150 women workers from 37 different factories supplying garments to Gap, H&M, and Walmart, and found that women workers are routinely subjected to a broad spectrum of violence. Our research found that women garment workers may be targets of violence on the basis of their gender, or because they are perceived as less likely or able to resist.

In particular, one respondent’s experiences offer specific insights into the risk factors that leave women workers in garment supply chains exposed to violence. Radhika, a woman worker employed in an H&M supplier factory in Bangalore, Karnataka, India reported physical abuse associated with pressure to meet production targets. Radhika described being thrown to the floor and beaten, including on her breasts:

On September 27, 2017, at 12:30 pm, my batch supervisor came up behind me as I was working on the sewing machine, yelling “you are not meeting your target production.” He pulled me out of the chair and I fell on the floor. He hit me, including on my breasts. He pulled me up and then pushed me to the floor again. He kicked me.

Radhika filed a written complaint with the human resources department at the factory. She described the meeting between herself, the supervisor, and human resources personnel:

They called the supervisor to the office and said, “last month you did the same thing to another lady – haven’t you learned?” Then they told him to apologize to me. After that, they warned me not to mention this further. The supervisor and I left the meeting. I went back to work.

Radhika reported that the harassment from her manager did not stop, but that she continued to work at the factory because she needs the job: “My husband passed away and I have a physically challenged daughter who cannot work. That is why I need the job. I suffer a lot to earn my livelihood.”

In the H&M supplier factory where Radhika worked, women are concentrated in operator roles, as line tailors and helpers in the production department – a microcosm of gendered hiring practices in garment global production networks. Across Asia, women garment workers make up the vast majority of garment workers. In Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, women workers represent between 80-95% of the garment workforce. In India, women account for between 60-75% of the garment workforce. Women rarely, however, hold management and supervisory positions.

The experiences of gender-based violence in garment supplier factories documented in these reports are not isolated incidents. Rather, they reflect a convergence of risk factors for gender–based violence in Asian garment supply chains that leave women garment workers systematically exposed to violence.

Our research found that risk factors for violence in garment supply chains are a by-product of how brands like Gap, H&M, and Walmart do business. The structure of production in global production networks (GPNs), involving several companies across multiple countries, allows brands and retailers to dictate sourcing and production patterns while deflecting accountability for how purchasing practices drive violence, harassment, and severe violations of rights at work.

Concentration of Women Workers in Subordinate Roles

Women are disproportionately impacted by patterns of violence in garment supply chains because they make up the vast majority of garment workers in Bangladesh (80%), Cambodia (90-95%), India (60-75%), Indonesia (80%), and Sri Lanka (85%).

Despite their numerical majority within the garment sector, women workers remain within low skill level employment and rarely reach leadership positions in their factories and unions. Detailed factory profiles reveal that at the factory level, women workers are concentrated in the production department, in subordinate roles as machine operators, checkers, and helpers in production departments.

Researchers also completed in-depth factory profiles of 13 garment supplier factories, including five factories from Bangladesh, five factories from Cambodia, and three factories from India. These factory profiles provide a demographic snapshot of the garment supply chain workforce that demonstrates the concentration of women workers in temporary, low-wage production jobs within the garment supply chain. Factory profiles also sought to understand working conditions, presence of trade unions and dispute resolution mechanisms.

Risk Factors for Gender-Based Violence in Supply Chains

The experiences of gender-based violence documented in our new reports on gender-based violence in GapH&M, and Walmart garment supply chains are not isolated incidents. Rather, they reflect a convergence of risk factors for gender-based violence in supplier factories that leave women garment workers systematically exposed to violence.

Our research sought to document working conditions that place women garment workers at routine risk of gender-based violence. For instance, researchers documented extreme pressure to complete production targets where women face routine physical violence including slapping and throwing large bundles of clothes and smaller sharp projectiles, such as scissors; and verbal abuse. Researchers also documented barriers to reporting workplace violence, including high levels of job insecurity and threats of firing among temporary workers. Finally, by completing detailed ‘day in the life’ accounts, researchers documented deprivations of liberty including being forced to work through legally mandated breaks, forced overtime, and relocation of workers between factories and buildings without prior consent.

Risk factors in garment supply chains are a by-product of how multinational corporations do business. These risk factors stem from the structure of garment supply chains, including:

  • asymmetrical relationships of power between brands and suppliers in garment supply chains;
  • brand purchasing practices driven by fast fashion trends and pressure to reduce costs; and
  • proliferation of contract labor and subcontracting practices among supplier firms.

These routine industry practices have a profound impact on Bangladeshi, Cambodian, Indian, Indonesian and Sri Lankan women workers. By analyzing cases of violence reported by women garment workers, we identified a series of risk factors for violence and barriers to accountability.

Risk Factors for Violence:

  1. Short term contracts
  2. Production targets
  3. Failure to pay a living wage
  4. Excessive hours of work
  5. Unsafe workplaces

Barriers to Accountability:

  1. Unauthorized subcontracting
  2. Denial of freedom of association
  3. Lack of independent monitoring

Drawing upon our 2016 research on violations of fundamental rights at work – including structured interviews with 745 workers employed in 105 factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and India – our reports demonstrate that these risk factors and barriers to accountability are widespread in the Gap, H&M, and Walmart garment supply chains.

Multinational Brands Must Speak Out

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Standard Setting Committee is now halfway through its important work. In June 2019, negotiations will begin again coinciding with the hundredth anniversary of the ILO with the goal of finalizing a convention and recommendation.

Action from US-based multinational brands is important. Walmart and other brands should join H&M and Gap in publicly supporting and committing to proactively implement an ILO convention and recommendation on gender-based violence that includes the recommendations from the Asia Floor Wage Alliance and partners.

H&M, Gap, and Walmart should also meet with the Asia Floor Wage Women’s Leadership Committee in the next three months to discuss the supply chain findings and next steps, including proactively working with the Asia Floor Wage Alliance to pilot women’s committees in factories that aim to eliminate gender-based violence and discrimination from supplier factories.

So far there has been no direct response. Gap and H&M have said they will engage in internal audits with their suppliers. Disappointingly they have not reached out to the trade unions. It is not enough to have so-called corporate social responsibility policies, which new research further shows are insufficient to alone deliver decent working conditions to women workers.

Women workers and their labor organizations are uniting across borders to demand work that is free of gender-based violence, pays a living wage, and promotes women’s initiative and leadership at all levels. Multinational corporations are expanding global supply chain models in many sectors. But it’s not only the corporations that are going global. Intersectional movements of workers, women, migrants and others are building cross-border networks and demanding change to a system that relies on poverty wages and gender-based violence to deliver fast fashion to the US and Europe at the expense of the well-being of women garment workers and their families.

Neither CSR nor local laws are protecting the workers in Walmart’s supplier factories from exploitation and gender-based violence. We need an instrument with more teeth.

Aaron Halegua

Original Post at Open Democracy

*Any views expressed in this article are those of the authors.

A condom display in a Tianjin Wal-Mart. Matthew Stinson/Flickr. CC (by-nc)

A coalition of labor groups, including Global Labor Justice and the Asian Floor Wage Alliance, issued a report last month documenting extensive sexual violence and harassment at Walmart apparel supplier factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Indonesia. In the study, ‘Gender Based Violence in the Walmart Garment Supply Chain’, women also reported retaliation when they refused sexual advances or complained about the mistreatment. The findings are based on interviews with 250 workers in 60 factories over a six year period.

But what about labor conditions in the world’s largest exporter of apparel and countless other manufactured goods – China? Unfortunately, Walmart’s track record in that country is not much better.

Reports of labor abuses at Walmart’s over 6,000 Chinese suppliers have persisted for well over a decade. For instance, a Washington Post story from 2004 noted child labor and excessive overtime at these factories. A 2006 investigation into a factory producing Christmas tree ornaments for Walmart found hundreds of high school students working seven days a week, fifteen hours a day in noisy spaces lacking air-conditioning for as little as $110 per month.

Labor problems still persist today. China Labor Watch’s 2016 investigation of toy factories producing for Walmart revealed illegal levels of overtime, illegally low wages, and unsafe, toxic working conditions. The same group’s 2017 reporton a kitchen appliance manufacturer that sells to Walmart alleges horrific abuses of college student employees that likely amount to forced labor – namely, withholding their identification documents and threatening to withhold wages if they leave.

A 2016 investigation of toy factories producing for Walmart revealed illegal levels of overtime, illegally low wages, and unsafe, toxic working conditions.

About one year ago, an American woman found a handwritten note in the purse she bought at an Arizona Walmart, which stated that the Chinese prison inmatewho made the item worked 14-hour days and was subject to beatings. In response, a Walmart spokesperson acknowledged that finding “qualified suppliers who uphold our standards” remains a “significant challenge”, even after a decade of codes of conduct, third-party audits, and monitoring programs.

GBV in Chinese manufacturing

 

The “Gender Based Violence in the Walmart Garment Supply Chain” report’s thorough investigation of this issue in a single company’s supply chain across multiple countries is unprecedented. No similar research into the prevalence of sexual violence and harassment at Walmart’s suppliers in China has been performed. Some groups, however, have examined China’s manufacturing sector more generally. A 2013 survey of 134 female factory workers in Guangzhou found that 70% of respondents reported experiencing “annoying whistling, shouts and lewd jokes,” 66% received “offensive comments about the body or appearance,” and 32% encountered “annoying touching” – causing 15% of respondents to leave their jobs.

As the #MeToo movement engrossed China earlier this year, a female Foxconn employee reported that the aforementioned behaviors are “prevalent” in her workplace and create a “sexual harassment culture.” For a variety of reasons, including career concerns and a fear of being ridiculed, many Chinese sexual harassment victims never come forward. However, as I have written elsewhere, even those willing to take legal action rarely prevail in China’s court system. In light of the above, and given the breadth of Walmart’s supply chain in China, it would be quite a shock if its supplier factories were somehow free of sexual harassment incidents.

In addition to being an enormous purchaser of Chinese goods, Walmart has 400 retail stores and over 100,000 employees in China. As an employer, Walmart has also been criticized for problems involving low wages, sexual harassment, and freedom of association. In terms of pay, while salaries for Walmart employees were initially quite competitive, the New York Timesreports that they now hover around the minimum wage, which is about $300 per month in some Chinese cities. As for sexual harassment, in 2012, female employees at a Nanjing store complained of a male employee who would rub his cheek against theirs, touch them on the shoulders, and text inappropriate messages. In that instance, to Walmart’s credit, the male employee was terminated for his actions. Yet, in other instances, female employees who complained of being inappropriately touched by store patrons were essentially ignored by managers, who told the workers that “the customer is always right.”

Female employees who complained of being inappropriately touched by store patrons were essentially ignored by managers, who told the workers that “the customer is always right.”

Turning to the issue of worker representation, back in 2006, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions compelled Walmart to establish trade union branches in its stores; but these state-dominated unions did little to promote worker interests. As a China Labour Bulletin report details, over the last decade, Walmart employees have strived to establish independent organizations that represent and advocate for workers, but the company has consistently thwarted these efforts and retaliated against the most vocal workers.

In 2016, Walmart’s decision to impose a new flexible hour working system, which would effectively deprive certain workers of overtime pay, set off employee protests, including a series of four strikes in four days. As noted by Kevin Lin, an authority on Chinese labor issues, this mobilization was remarkable because labor organizing and coordination across workplaces and regions is very rare in China. Yet, once again, Walmart has worked to squelch this campaign, with the New York Timesreporting that the most vocal workers have been denied raises, reassigned, or even fired. The retaliatory measures have also included acts of sexual harassment, including a supervisor photographing an outspoken female employee while she used the bathroom. Another female employee who protested the new policy experienced a barrage of posts to a WeChat group comprised of many Walmart coworkers that alleged she had an inappropriate sexual relationship.

The Global Labor Justice report, after documenting extensive abuse at Walmart suppliers, calls upon the International Labor Organization to adopt a convention addressing gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace, including specific measures to be taken by national governments and multinational corporations. The experience of Walmart in China only supports the need for such an instrument. Until now, neither the company’s corporate social responsibility programs nor domestic laws and policies have proven sufficient to protect Chinese workers from sexual harassment or other labor abuses.

Sam Nelson
Original Post at Jobs with Justice

 

*Any views expressed in this article are those of the authors.

Hundreds of business, labor union, and government representatives from International Labour Organization member countries are meeting in Geneva, Switzerland for the annual International Labour Conference in June. The goal of the U.N. agency’s forum this year is to create a global standard to address gender-based violence in the workplace. To aid this discussion, Global Labor Justice, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, and other partners have compiled reports detailing gender-based violence across factories in Walmart’s garment supply chain in Asia.

Researchers found a wide spectrum of gender-based violence in the factories that produce clothing for Walmart. In Bangladesh, a factory boss subjected an employee named Sulatana to months of harassment, then fired her for refusing to date him. Local police refused to open a case file on her behalf. Those who assemble clothes for a Bangladeshi Walmart suppliers argue that a complaint box for employees that is overseen by someone paid directly by the factory manager is “useless” and complaints are not taken seriously.

In Cambodia, women reported beatings at the hands of their male co-workers, as well as by factory management. Violence also comes in the form of depriving these women of fundamental workplace rights, such as lunch breaks and overtime pay. At least 500 Cambodian garment workers fainted on production lines in 2017 because their bosses forced them to work overtime during the hottest season of the year while providing little access to water.

Walmart is no stranger to complaints from women who work for the retail giant. The company was the subject of the largest class-action lawsuit in U.S. history, brought about by 1.6 million associates who alleged the retailer of limiting the pay and promotional opportunities for women. Respect the Bump, a grassroots group started by current and former Walmart personnel achieved marked improvements for pregnant Walmart employees while calling out the company on its violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Global Labor Justice and Asia Floor Wage Alliance have developed a list of recommendations Walmart should adopt and implement to begin making things right with women who work for them in any capacity. To ensure Walmart’s compliance, they argue the corporation needs to respect the right for the women producing clothes for their stores to join together in union. The groups also requested that Walmart representatives meet with the Asia Floor Wage Alliance Women’s Committee (made up of women who work in factories in each of the countries involved) within three months to create remedies on the factory floor.

Walmart has the means to use its power to benefit the working people who make and sell its apparel — the overwhelming amount who are women. Walmart has a responsibility to each of these women to make their workplaces respectful, dignified, and free from violence and discrimination.

You can help press the company to end gender-based violence within its supply chain by signing this petition to Walmart.