The abusive conditions of employment for women in SA’s garment industry

98% of female workers surveyed in 2022 say they have experienced one or more incidents of gender-based violence or harassment. Photo by Workers' World Media Productions

The LRS report which draws on testimonies from 117 workers in companies in three provinces finds that, bullying, verbal abuse, and physical forms of sexual harassment are common.

The garment sector is riddled with cases of gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) that goes unpunished and most times, unreported due to a failure to implement company policies, according to a report by the Labour Research Services (LRS). The report covers different forms of violence such as rape, sexual assault, psychological abuse, bullying and more. Although GBVH occurs in various professions, it is particularly widespread in the garment industry where most of the general workers are women.

Cases of abuse against members of the LGBTQ+ community are also prevalent. According to the report, “The prejudice and discrimination faced by members of the LGBTQ+ community puts them at increased risk of threat and violence,” says the report.    

LRS researcher, Nina Benjamin said that the study reveals that in most cases, the perpetrators of GBVH are supervisors, managers, as well as co-workers. “Managers and supervisors use verbal abuse as a way of managing workers,” she said.

Graphic from LRS report

Dynamics like this, the report argues, are very common in the garment sector because of the unequal power between staff, where the perpetrators use violence to maintain their control over others and workers have to accept inappropriate touching leads to better job security. Romantic partners and former partners were also identified as common perpetrators, which in the past, would have been seen as a unrelated to an employee’s role at work. However, the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Violence and Harassment Convention 190 (C190) has challenged this way of thinking, arguing that domestic violence has a direct impact on an employee’s productivity, health, and safety at work.

In the garment industry, workplaces are often characterised by unequal power relations, which added to production pressure, often results in bullying, and physical or verbal abuse from senior members towards workers to meet targets. The workers, according to the report, spoke of a ‘culture of rudeness’ where managers and supervisors use verbal abuse as a way of managing workers. They feel that this along with the stress of meeting production targets feeds into what they describe as “a feeling of everyone being on edge and having no way to speak to each other.” 

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Types of GBVH that is experienced by garment workers who participated in the research. Graphic from LRS report.

Women are more vulnerable to violence and harassment where their employment is insecure and precarious because they lack legal protection and bargaining power. Unions are therefore critical to fighting GBVH and the LRS has confronted unions about the threats to workers in the garment industry. The South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu) says that the union has put in place a number of measures to improve conditions of employment where issues of GBVH are concerned. “As Sactwu, we have always played an active role to engage through our collective bargaining systems and structures that we have in the garment sector particularly,” says the union’s secretary general, Bonita Loubser.

She says that Sactwu has helped shape the policies that are implemented within the industry. The union claims it has ensured that companies in the garment sector adopt a harassment code, guided by the Employment Equity Act. The union has also put their leaders through training workshops and capacity building seminars to combat GBVH in the workplace. “The role of the trade union has always been to robustly engage and to actively deal with matters involving GBVH in the workplace,” says Loubser.

Illustration by LRS

Benjamin argues that most companies in the sector claim to have harassment policies in place; however, most workers are not aware of these policies and those that are aware said that they found it difficult to access the policy. Another issue experienced by workers is that of the lack of consistent channels or procedures across companies to report any form of abuse experienced or witnessed. This has led to an even bigger issue of under-reporting and a culture of silence. “Workers report wanting to see stronger sanctions like warnings, dismissals and arrest, as well as clear policies and procedures, and more effective implementation, enforcement and monitoring of these policies,” Benjamin says.

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According to the LRS survey, 62% of the cases reported the perpetrator was not held accountable, which can only discourage future reporting of abuse. “It remains an issue for workers to report cases of GBV especially where members of management are directly involved,” say Loubser. She believes that it is the duty of unions such as Sactwu to use advocacy and awareness to advocate for workers to break the silence and blow the whistle against abuse.

Contributing to under-reporting and the culture of silence on the shopfloor is the failure by companies to adhere to their duties to provide all the necessary psychological support to their employees, as well as ensure that full discretion is practiced in order to not further victimise the employee.

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