Saturday, 27 November, 2021
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Protecting Women from Workplace Harassment

Helal Uddin Ahmed

Protecting Women from Workplace Harassment

Workers – both men and women – have been the main strength in Bangladesh’s socioeconomic advancement over the years. The country could achieve the millennium development goals (MDGs-2015) and is on course to attain sustainable development goals (SDGs-2030) declared by the United Nations due to the huge contributions made by this invaluable asset. But although Bangladesh is now on the verge of becoming a developing nation through graduation from the status of a least developed country, much still needs to be done in some areas including reforming relevant labour laws, rules and policies for bettering the work environment. More specifically, elimination of women’s harassment at workplace, wage discriminations, timely payment of wages, and job uncertainties deserve urgent attention of the policy makers as well as relevant stakeholders.

The ILO Convention No. 190 is an international treaty that acknowledges the rights of all workers for a workspace free from violence and harassment, including gender-based ones. The ratification of this convention and its enforcement in Bangladesh is urgently needed in order to improve the situation at the workplaces, especially for female workers. Although Bangladesh has a number of laws for tackling harassment and violence, the legal framework for curbing such offences at the workplace is still very weak. The labour law of the country has not even clearly defined workplace harassment and violence.

Section 332 of Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 states that no person of any establishment should behave with any employed woman that might seem to be indecent or unmannerly or which is repugnant to the modesty or honour of that woman. But the provision is apparently gender insensitive, and does not specifically refer to harassment or violence that women experience at the workplace. The maximum punishment under it is only a fine of Taka 25 thousand. The High Court Guidelines of 2009 had defined sexual harassment and mentioned about punishment for the perpetrators of such offences, but not much was on offer for the victims with the exception of counselling. Besides, the enforcement framework for labour law and gender-based violence is also weak. Consequently, proper application and supervision of the law must be ensured alongside reforming it.

Apart from reforming laws and policies by catering to all stakeholders, there is also urgent need for generating awareness about them as many owners, workers and labour leaders lack clear or precise idea about these instruments. The government clearly has a role to play in this regard alongside the workers’ organizations and trade unions. Besides, discussions also need to take place on how the labourers working in the informal sector can be brought under the purview of the labour law. There is also a need for social cum educational campaigns, as things are unlikely to improve much unless the social outlook and individual attitude towards gender-based violence undergoes change for the better. The government can prepare a roadmap for ensuring safe workplace for all workers irrespective of their gender or other attributes.

The readymade garments (RMG) industry of Bangladesh has achieved commendable success due to the large-scale participation of female workers, who now constitute about 60 per cent of the total workforce in the sector. The participation of women in other sectors including agriculture is also on the rise. But sexual harassment and gender-based violence against them appears to be shooting up across the country. Therefore, a safe and secure workplace free from harassment is a must for attracting more women to the jobs market in both the formal and informal sectors. This necessitates the ratification of ILO Convention No. 190 and amendments to the country’s labour law and policies. The convention has in fact come into force all over the world from 25 June this year. Experts hold the view that there is no ground for any hesitation regarding ratification of this convention. Ratifying it would also help in branding Bangladesh as a progressive country that sticks to the highest international standards in safeguarding the rights of female workers. Political goodwill at the highest level is required for making such a pragmatic move that would bolster the country’s image in the international arena.

Depending on their age, position and marital status, women face multifarious harassments at the workplace. They are often compelled to prove their worth and position not only as woman, but also as worker. The factories and establishments should therefore ensure adequate facilities for their safety at the workplace including provision of day-care centres for workers’ children, office transports, separate washrooms, sanitary and hygiene care, etc. The workers’ bodies should also have at least one-third representation from women. Training sessions should be organized in factories for increasing gender sensitivity. Even families – the basic units and building-blocs of our society – should be freed from the malaise of gender discrimination.

Experts also opine that an element of accountability could be added if the ILO Convention No. 190 is ratified. The High Court verdict on sexual harassment delivered in 2009 is binding on the public and private sectors. Although there was a section on sexual harassment in The Women and Child Repression Act, 1995, it was unfortunately removed in 2003 for fear of misuse. Proving such allegations is very challenging, as a result of which many offenders go scot-free. The matter moreover needs to be kept a secret, as the accused is not a criminal until proved guilty. The workers should be conscious about all these aspects, features, and obligations. 

In view of the above, the government may opt for ratifying the ILO Convention No. 190 as soon as possible, and take measures for its proper implementation at the workplace. The labour law should be amended and updated in line with it by including labourers working in both the formal and informal sectors. Gender-based violence and harassment should also be specifically mentioned in the law. Besides, rigorous application of the rules and policies related to sexual violence and harassment should be ensured, and all the factories and establishments must be brought under a monitoring cum supervision mechanism for the purpose. The representation of women in trade unions should be enhanced by ensuring 33 per cent quota for them in those bodies. Besides, publicity campaign may be waged for making female workers aware about their rights and obligations.

 

The writer is a freelance contributor