Gender violence study in Brazilian garment factories provides a ‘wake-up call to action’

Gender-based violence and harassment at work is pervasive in Brazil, and until the adoption of the world’s first global standard on violence and harassment at work – C190 – little was being done to rectify it. (AP/Eraldo Peres)

The vast majority of Brazilian textile and shoe factory workers who took part in a recent study say they have experienced some form of violence at work, often gender-based violence and harassment—to the extent that “for many women, work is synonymous with suffering”.

According to the National Confederation of Apparel Workers (CNTRV) president Francisca Trajano, “the most revealing thing this study [Promoting Human Rights and Strengthening Trade Union Action and Equality in the Brazilian Clothing Sector, currently only available in Portuguese] uncovered is the extent of violence in the workplace. I am especially surprised by the extent of sexual harassment by supervisors.”

Some 246 women workers took part in either regional workshops or guided discussions between March and June as part of an Instituto Observatorio Social study of textile and shoe workers in six cities: Colatina, Fortaleza, Ipirá, Pouso Alegre, Sapiranga, Sorocaba, and São Paulo.

The study, funded by the Brazilian branch of the C&A Foundation and undertaken with support from the US labour rights oragnisation the Solidarity Center, found the most frequent form of violence is bullying, with supervisors screaming and cursing at workers, threatening them if they do not produce at the required pace and harassing them for using the bathroom.

Bullying often is directed toward union leaders, the report finds, with female union leaders closely watched by supervisors, who also harass and even fire workers who talk with them. The survey shows that gender violence often is mixed with other types of violence and discrimination, making Afro-Brazilian women, LGBTQI+ workers and others especially vulnerable.

The women workers who took part in the study stressed the importance of collective agreements to improve working conditions, and the report recommends unions negotiate clauses to combat bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace. The study also recommends unions hold workshops and discussion sessions to make workers aware of their right to a violence-free workplace. Many women interviewed were unaware of the laws and other options to combat violence at work.

Further, union leaders at the local and national levels who were not directly involved in the project have shown keen interest in its findings, says Trajano. “They are reflecting on how to think through how unions can be a place where women who are victims of the violence can turn to get help.”

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Afro-Brazilians and LGBTQI+ workers especially vulnerable

Sexual harassment, which is a form of gender-based violence, is widespread and sometimes subtle, according to the report. “But regardless of the form, sexual harassment is a constant situation,” say the report’s authors. Women often fear reporting sexual harassment or assault, and with good reason: “In some cases when they bring the complaint to superiors, women are ridiculed. In other cases, they have no one to whom to bring the complaint because the supervisor is also a perpetrator,” the report states.

As in Brazil textile factories, gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) at work is pervasive—and until this year, little was being done to rectify it. In June, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the world’s first global standard on violence and harassment at work, including GBVH. Convention 190 will become effective 12 months after it is ratified by two national governments. In December, Uruguay became the first country to ratify C190.

For Afro-Brazilians, discrimination can begin even before they are hired, with employers often openly refusing to interview black workers.

“I once went to a job interview and [the employer] said he couldn’t hire me because I didn’t have straight hair,” said one garment worker (the report does not identify worker’s names).

If hired, often Afro-Brazilians are given the most difficult and unpleasant jobs. “When admitted, black women are usually assigned to the worst services, such as working with shoe glue or working in noisy and uncomfortable machines,” according to the report.

Black women report that they are also sexually harassed more often and are blamed for sloppy work, while work done well is referred to as ‘white service’, the report says.

LGBTQI+ workers are frequent targets of verbal harassment and bullying, often by co-workers, and especially around the use of bathrooms, according to the report. Supervisors also sometimes refuse to work with an LGBTQI+ employee. If the workers are perceived as more ‘feminine’, they are more likely to be targets of violence similar to that experienced by cisgender/heterosexual women, the report states. Trans workers are especially abused, the report finds.

“In the company I work for, there was a person who got a job and dressed as a man,” says one garment worker. “After about three months she started dressing as a woman,” and soon after the company fired the worker.

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Women who are mothers of small children also face discrimination: some employers refuse to hire them, and in “one company, the owner even said that would only hire women who had already had a tubal ligation” so as to ensure they would not have more children, according to the report.

In general, the report finds that clothing companies are organised from a rigid social and sexual division of labour, in which women generally occupy the least qualified and worst paid positions.

Raising awareness of GBVH at work

One key goal of the report is to start a dialogue with employers to seek remedies for gender-based violence at work, says Jana Silverman, Solidarity Center Brazil country director. Further, the study, which solely examines unionised workplaces, should “raise awareness about the prevalence of gender-based violence in the workplace, raise awareness amongst union leadership, especially male leadership, about how prevalent this is in their rank-and-file membership,” she says.

The report already has created concrete change. Union members at garment factories in Pouso Alegre in the southern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais negotiated a contract clause in which employers committed to hold biannual trainings for managers to combat GBVH in the workplace.

Unions evaluated the study’s findings in December and plan to take the report to their executive committees and create the conditions to prevent and end GBVH through collective bargaining or social dialogue with employers.

Trajano says CNTRV, which represents 69 unions and three state regional federations, is pressing unions to negotiate contract language protecting against gender-based violence and harassment.

CNTRV is well-placed to lead the campaign addressing gender-based violence at work. In April, delegates to CNTRV’s 11th Congress voted for gender parity in leadership and adopted a pro-women’s rights agenda. In partnership with the Solidarity Center, CNTRV in recent years ran a nationwide women’s leadership project, preparing women workers to assume leadership positions.

“Obviously it was very shocking to us when we received the results of the report to understand the extent of violence at the workplace,” says Trajano, who also is an executive committee member of the Central Union of Workers in Brazil (CUT). “At the same time, it’s a wake-up call to do something about it.”

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