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The hidden crisis of workplace violence against women

28 September, 2017Violence against women at work is real; it happens every day, in every corner of the world. It takes shape in many ways – from verbal and physical abuse to sexual assault and even murder. 

As an organization that represents 50 million workers in 140 countries, IndustriALL Global Union believes all forms of violence against women are unacceptable and supports its trade union affiliates as they take action to stop it.  

All too often, women working in IndustriALL’s sectors – including mining, textile and manufacturing – are afraid to speak out against abuses they face out of fear of losing their jobs, being stigmatized, or being socially ostracized both at work and at home. When they do speak out they are often ignored or blamed.

A woman union leader at a multinational mining company in Colombia not only endured aggressive verbal abuse and discrimination from her male colleagues, but was also sexually assaulted by one of her bosses. When she complained to the company, another woman was prompted to come forward with similar allegations against the same man. Despite the company saying they would handle the situation, nothing was done.

Very often complicity from the company allows perpetrators to act with impunity. When a young woman working in the aerospace sector in Morocco complained about being sexually harassed by her supervisor, the company accused her of inventing the story. The management put pressure on the woman to drop the allegations, explaining the negative impact it would have on the company if the story got out. The woman had no proof of being harassed and it was her word against his. She ended up leaving the company.

Beneath these testimonies of abuse and harassment is the power that men exercise over women. When this is challenged it can create further problems. A worker at a Colombian mining company said her life was made ‘a living hell’ by a male colleague who refused to accept that the she was his equal. It was only after she took action through her union that the harassment and verbal abuse eventually stopped.

In the male-dominated mining sector in South Africa, sexual harassment of women is all too common. Women report that it starts the minute they walk inside a cage to go underground, and male co-workers take advantage of the confined space to touch them or push their breasts up against the walls of the cage.  

Tolerance of sexual harassment can culminate in the most horrific violence. Twenty-seven-year-old South African miner, Pinky Mosiane, was found in a pool of blood with a used condom discarded nearby after being attacked by a co-worker in 2012. The young mother, who had been working underground in an isolated area, died shortly after. Another female mineworker, Cynthia Setuke, was raped and murdered by a male colleague as she worked in a dimly lit mineshaft in 2013. A study released by charity Médécins Sans Frontières in 2016, found that 1 in 4 women living in South Africa’s platinum mining belt had been raped.

However, violence against women is not limited to male-dominated sectors.  Trade union representatives and workers from textile and garment unions in Latin America, Asia and North Africa have reported that violence against women is common in their sectors as well.

“We are screamed and shouted at by our supervisors, and ordered here and there even when we have a job to do. They treat us like donkeys, telling us our work is no good, controlling when we go to the bathroom and not allowing pregnant women go to medical appointments”, said a woman textile worker in Peru.

Production pressures also lead to supervisors treating workers badly. In Morocco, women garment workers reported being physically and verbally abused, prevented from going to the lavatory, pinched, slapped or beaten with the clothing they’re making if their work speed is deemed not fast enough.  Unions are fighting back, writing to labour inspectorates and employers, and complaining to the police.

Sometimes women are targeted solely because they are pregnant, which then poses a risk to both the mother and unborn child. A garment worker in Peru recounted how she was repeatedly refused permission to seek medical attention when she was feeling unwell at work. Despite her extreme tiredness, the company forced her to continue working 12-hour night shifts from 7pm to 7am and actually increased her workload by 50 per cent. When her work began to falter, she was suspended. The company ended up firing her a few months after she gave birth and even falsified her signature in a letter of resignation. Her union is now pursuing her case of illegal dismissal in the courts.

Women who are less qualified, single mothers and agency or outsourced workers are at greater risk of gender-based violence. But educated white-collar women workers are also victims of abuse. Swedish affiliate Unionen helped a young woman working at an electricity firm successfully take the director of the company where she worked to the labour court for sexual harassment after he touched her inappropriately at the office Christmas party. The police had told her there was not enough evidence to prosecute him through the criminal courts. In a survey of 1,000 of its members, Unionen found that 1 in 4 women had been sexually harassed at work.

As the assistant general secretary of IndustriALL, Jenny Holdcroft, says:

The struggle to eradicate violence against women in the workplace must be taken up by unions everywhere, using every means, every tool, and every effort possible. We cannot claim to support women’s rights, equality or decent work without tackling this most basic violation of human rights.