Gender-based violence at work

Gender-based violence is one of the most widespread human rights violations in the world. It is mainly directed against women and sexual minorities. The perpetrators are mostly men. Gender-based violence is the expression of unequal power relations between women and men.

Sewing of clothes is mainly done by women, depending on the country 60 to 90 percent of the workers are women. Men work mainly in supervisory and executive positions, they give instructions, exert pressure and often also resort to violent behaviour. Therefore, companies that source textiles produced in these countries must pay special attention to their suppliers’ policies and actions to not tolerate violence at the workplace and to take preventive measures.

In the factories of Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Myanmar, Ethiopia and many other countries, the women who sew clothing for the European market are very young and mostly between 16 and 28 years old. Many have a low level of education and have migrated from the villages to the cities to earn money. They are employed because they are considered to be nimble and docile. Sewing is done as piece work, that means one and the same work step over and over again. There are hardly any breaks, the shifts last up to 19 hours. Pregnant women and mothers are often forced to resign. Due to hierarchies in the production units, many women experience physical violence in addition to verbal violence by superiors. This ranges from extensive body searches to sexual assaults and rape. As a result, women can develop emotional and stress-related illnesses and suffer physical and psychological injuries that may even lead to death. On the one hand, the time pressure in production lays ground for stressful and hectic working conditions that leverage the occurrence of violence. On the other hand, violence against women and girls is an expression of power hierarchies linked to gender roles. Only 15 % of the world's trade union leaderships are women. Women often commute home after long working hours in the dark – putting them at risk at work and on their way home.

New ILO convention against gender-based violence at work

Globally only 15 % of union leaders are women.Globally only 15 % of union leaders are women.To mark the 100th anniversary of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the member states adopted the new International Convention No. 190 against Violence and Harassment at Work at the end of June 2019 with an overwhelming majority. It was additionally supplemented by a recommendation for concrete implementation by the member states. This legally binding international treaty is a historic victory for workers and their representatives: The adoption of the Convention is an important step, especially for working women, which finally closes a protection gap for millions of workers who suffer violence and harassment at work. The Convention and the supplementary recommendation explicitly take into account gender-based violence at work, which affects women and girls in particular. The Convention stresses that the causes of gender-based violence (gender stereotypes, discrimination, unequal power relations between the sexes) must also be addressed. Until now, there has been no law at international level that served as a basis for such measures. The adopted Convention provides for a wide range of remedial measures for violence and harassment, such as complaints mechanisms and extensive support measures for survivors.

With the Convention 190, Member States now have a strong blueprint to set their national legislation accordingly to prevent violence and harassment at work, protect workers, especially women, and provide legal redress for survivors. But this is only the beginning. The next step is to put protection into practice, which requires textile buying companies to participate. FEMNET is committed to this objective together with partner organisations.

We demand from companies:

  1. Act in accordance with the Declaration of Principles concerning Respect for Human Rights at Work
    • Recognise human rights at work, particularly the core labour standards of the International Labour Organisation and the right to living wages
    • Embed these standards in company policies along the entire supply chain - Publish implementation strategies with timetables
  2. Analyse risks and effects
    • Work with trade unions and women-led NGOs to identify violence and discrimination against women (human rights due diligence)
    • Recognise gender-based violence at the workplace and on the way to work as well as underlying patriarchal structures and integrate this into the risk analysis
  3. Prevent gender-based violence
    • Conduct awareness training for the mostly male superiors, ban the force of pregnancy tests by employers/ factories, do not pay migrant women less, provide legally required childcare
    • Involve women-led trade unions and non-governmental organisations in factory inspections (social audits)
    • Review the effectiveness of these measures
  4. Creating transparency
    • Disclose suppliers in all production countries
    • Publish the main social audit results
  5. Establish complaint mechanisms
    • Establish complaint mechanisms for victims of gender-based violence (confidant, anonymous complaint procedure)
    • Provide legal advice to survivors
    • If the company partly shares the responsibility for the incidence, agree to pay the costs of legal proceedings and pay compensation


Further publications

Country specific information