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Our impact, their voices

Better Work Viet Nam challenges sexual harassment across the factory floor

Still an underreported issue in the country, the joint programme of the ILO and the International Finance Cooperation (IFC), sheds light on the nature of harassment in the workplace and ways to tackle it.

Feature | 14 September 2018
© Better Work
HO CHI MINH City (ILO News) – Soaring past a history of war and economic hardship, today’s Viet Nam is a global manufacturing hub navigating international trade with confidence.

With one of the strongest economic growth rates in Asia, and roughly half of a 92 million population of working age, the country’s expansion seems limitless.

Social transformation is beginning to follow suit. Internet chat rooms, web sites and blogs have become channels for young people to discuss social change, sexual orientation and one of the country’s biggest challenges: sexual harassment.

Although economic development has revolutionized standards of three generations living under the same roof, challenges remain, characterized by widely-known Vietnamese proverbs such as: “Flowers are meant for picking, women are meant to be cheated on by men.”

Dangerous assumptions branding women as legitimate and natural targets for unwanted sexual attention remain common across society, while victims often suffer from a blame culture.

Sexual harassment widespread

Although official figures on sexual harassment at the workplace are not readily available in Viet Nam, in a survey conducted by the country’s ILO office in 2015, up to 17 per cent of the 150 mid-career workers interviewed said either they or someone they knew in their workplace had been asked for “sexual favours by a superior in return for some kind of workplace benefit”.

CARE, an international organization working to stop gender-based violence and based in Hanoi, says 78 per cent of victims of sexual harassment in the workplace are women.

Obscene phone calls, pornographic messages, sexual comments, unwanted sexual attention, staring, direct propositions for sex at work or outside, and stalking are among the ways in which female workers are constantly harassed.

The garment sector is no exception.

Foreign and local manufacturers pour big investment in the local textile industry, the second biggest exporter to the U.S. after China. Bolstered by a strong reputation for efficiency, Viet Nam’s some 6,000 factories offer well-established production systems and top-performing staff.

But in the female-dominated sector of some 3.5 million workers, with few women in management positions, complaints about sexual harassment remain rare.

A study on sexual harassment in the workplace conducted by the country’s Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) and the ILO found that fear of reprisals prevent victims from speaking out, let alone reporting cases officially.

“Our team hears many stories during our coaching work at factories, but workers are scared to report them,” says David Williams, Better Work Viet Nam’s Technical Officer. “Women lack knowledge about their rights and the procedures they need to go through at the factory level to get cases addressed.”

Since its inception, Better Work Viet Nam has covered more than 530 factories with a combined workforce of 738,000 – more than one fourth of the industry’s total. Eighty per cent of the workers are women. Though most of the factories working with Better Work have procedures and policies in place on sexual harassment, they often remain on paper, while workers right up to senior management are often unaware of their existence.

A vague legal definition of sexual harassment further complicates the matter. To give employers a chance to better understand the issue and put more practical policies in place, the ILO and other international agencies are pushing for a more precise definition within the Labour Code.

Workplace guidelines

“Better Work Viet Nam, together with others in the ILO and our national partners, have produced workplace guidelines on sexual harassment for employers,” says Nguyen Hong Ha, the Better Work Viet Nam Programme Manager. “What we need now is to work with factories to turn them into practical policies and real action, whilst also empowering workers to know their rights and raise their voices if they experience harassment.”

Better Work has recently come across a number of harassment cases, in which senior colleagues were the abusers – a phenomenon international studies find common across the sector.

In one factory, a worker accused her production supervisor of touching her and making inappropriate comments.

In a rare move, she decided to follow up with the Human Resources (HR) department and the factory’s trade union. The worker was eventually moved to another section, while the offender remained in his post and unpunished. Another worker fell victim shortly after. Fearing the denial of annual leave requests and a bad work report, she did not register a complaint.

In another case, a supervisor took advantage of the night shift to touch his female colleagues. After several workers’ complaints, the factory management fired the man.

Based on some of this evidence, the programme developed an informative three-minute animation, an easy-to-understand poster series for factory walls, and a sexual harassment prevention training course open to all factories.

But “usually, the attendees are supervisors, or HR and compliance staff,” Williams says. “We don’t get many workers or senior managers. There is a gap here that we need to address if we’re going to change attitudes throughout the factory.”

One of the course attendees, an HR manager with a Ho Chi Minh City-based Better Work-enrolled factory, says the course taught him how to behave appropriately with people around him, a lesson he started sharing with other colleagues.

In the same 1,028-person firm, a male worker says the training helped him better understand the scale of the issue.

“I now feel better able to address and deal with the cases if they occur in my factory,” he says. “I realized that sometimes our unintentional jokes can be considered a form of sexual harassment. I am now much more aware of what appropriate behaviour is.”

Better Work, a joint initiative of the International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, launched a comprehensive, five-year gender strategy to empower women, reduce sexual harassment and close the gender pay gap in the global garment industry in January 2018.

The new strategy aims to promote women’s economic empowerment through targeted initiatives in apparel factories, and by strengthening policies and practices at the national, regional and international levels.