Creating a safe workplace

Sok Chan

Forum discusses sexual harassment and violence

The government of Cambodia is pledging to prevent violence and sexual harassment in the workplace and elsewhere across the whole of Cambodian society.

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It is also calling on participation from multi-stakeholders, including employers, employees, factory owners, buyers, unions, line-governments and development partners to join the move.

The vow came after a report from Care (Cambodia) that shows sexual harassment in the workplace could have an indirect cost to the garment industry of up to $89 million per year.

Speaking at a Business of Women at Work forum in Phnom Penh this month, Minister of Labour and Vocational Training Ith Samheng, said violence and sexual harassment in the workplace has an impact on productivity and the health of workers.

Ith added violence and sexual harassment are illnesses that need to be cured. He said all parties must join together to prevent and eradicate the disease, with unions and civilians acting as partners.

Jan Noorlander
acting country director,
Care (Cambodia)

He added the government had already released many mechanisms and policies as well as cooperated with development partners and local and international organisations to participate with the ministry to promote the safety and wellbeing of female workers.

The ministry also issued principles for the prevention of and protection against violence and harassment in all forms in the workplace.

Ith says the Cambodian government has actively participated in international discussions and voted for supporting the eradication of violence and harassment in the workplace.

“The support and vote for supporting the approval on the Violence and Harassment Convention number 190 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) shows the commitment of the Cambodian government to contribute to the eradication of violence and harassment in the workplace and building future work with dignity and high productivity,” he adds.

He says it is important to promote better working conditions for employees to provide them with dignity and respect.

“Sexual harassment and violence in the workplace occur in different forms. Therefore, to counter it, there is a need for participation from all stakeholders in the network of the global supply chain [of a company], including participation from workers, employers, factory owners, buyers, unions, the government and the private sector,” says Ith.

The government has vowed to prevent and eliminate this issue from the working environment and Cambodian society as a whole, he adds.

The government has released several policies, implemented national and international regulations and works with partners, especially Care (Cambodia), to promote the safety and health of women workers. It has also issued principles regarding the prevention and abolition of violence and sexual harassment in the workplace.

In June 21, 2018, Care (Cambodia) released a report that said one in three women working in Cambodian garment factories had experienced sexual harassment in the previous 12 months and that this could have an indirect cost to the industry of up to $89 million per year.

The research showed that 23 factories employ Care Cambodia’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Package to send a clear message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in their workplaces. This approach will cover close to 40,000 workers.

Care’s package aims to prevent and respond to sexual harassment by supporting factories to put clear reporting procedures in place and train their staff on this issue.

Speaking at a Business of Women at Work forum on Oct 17, 2019, Care Cambodia’s acting Country Director Jan Noorlander, said the organisation was very surprised at the enormous sum, which it put down to women not feeling safe in their jobs and calling in sick or resigning, reducing productivity.

“It means that the factory has to recruit more staff and it takes time and this affects productivity,” said Noorlander. “If you add all of these things together in a very big industry it comes to a very high number.”

Ith Samheng
minister of labour and vocational training

He pointed out that this is not just a Cambodian problem but one found all over the world.

“It is about the power that men have over women and how they abuse that power sometimes. If you focus on the garment sector in Cambodia, the biggest industry sector in the country, and if you add the loss in productivity because of this problem, that adds up to a huge amount of money,” Noorlander added.

“It is not just about the money: It is also the view that everybody should feel safe in the workplace,” he said.

In Oct 21 this year, Care (Cambodia) interviewed five garment factory workers, aged 24 to 30, from King Fashion factory in Phnom Penh. Those workers shared their experiences and challenges with men in their workplaces.

“Most men leer, flirt, curse or use rude or bad words to women. It happens often. Luckily, now they have stopped because there is a better understanding of sexual harassment”, they said.

Care continues to work in factories such as King Fashions, as well as engage with governments to strengthen the regulation of factories and enshrine in law the policies and mechanisms which will help address sexual harassment in the workplace.

Women around the world go to work to contribute to their livelihoods, communities, support their families and grow their careers. They do not go to their workplace to suffer harassment or violence from others.

Nguyen Hong Ha, head of Better Work Asia, says that sexual harassment is a form of gender-based violence which occurs at home and in our communities, deeply rooted in wider forms of gender inequality.

She adds despite the issue that this is an issue reaching beyond our workplace, we have the responsibility and the opportunity to play a major role in tackling this difficult issue. Businesses can use their leverage and power to promote more respectful, safe, inclusive workplaces for their employees.

“Violence and harassment are seen as inherently unsustainable as they never improve workplace relations, productivity and business relations,” Nguyen says.

Sara Park, programme manager of a group called Better Factories Cambodia, says many working women experience sexual harassment at some point in their careers.

“Culture does not create people, people create culture –  and it is true that if the full humanity of women is not part of our culture, then we must make it part of our culture.”

She adds that sexual harassment affects work outcomes, reduces job satisfaction and increases absenteeism.

“We know that workers in certain sectors… are especially vulnerable to violence and harassment – and garment workers are very much in this category,” Ms Park says.

“As one of the Cambodian garment workers said about sexual harassment, women will feel scared and their minds will not be at ease. It will really affect the productivity of women workers,” she explains.

“We need a mindset change and action to develop a culture that prevents sexual harassment from occurring. It is not acceptable that women feel scared to report harassment or violence. This issue needs addressing at the workplace and a collaborative effort is required from all sectors of society including the government, workers and employers to sustain a dialogue on the subject. It also requires the private sector to take responsibility,” she adds.

Cambodia’s population is 51 percent female and they are essential resources to boost the economy. The garment sector has boosted national economic growth, providing jobs for women and giving them the opportunity to improve their livelihoods and escape poverty.

Last year, the labour sector grew remarkably. The employment rate was 99.3 percent, there were 12,000 registered enterprises and factories total employing 1.5 million people. There  were 600,000 informal enterprises with a total workforce of 2.4 million. Meanwhile. agriculture contributed 4 million jobs and immigration workers accounted for 1.2 million people.

Women can be burdened with family issues, suffer domestic violence and some have health issues that need to be cared for so there is a need to prepare a policy in response to these challenges, said Chan Sory, secretary of state at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

“Our ministry’s task is to maintain gender equality in Cambodia,” she said. “In Cambodia, as well as the rest of the world, violence comes from inequality between the genders. There is a lack of knowledge of proper behaviour, awareness of discrimination. Also, women’s voices are heard less. These factors put women at risk at work and in public.”

Sory said the participation of the private sector, local and national authorities and society at large is needed to implement appropriate policies.

In opening remarks at the unique convening of industry leaders from across Asia to discuss solutions to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in garment factories, Angela Corcoran, Australia’s ambassador to Cambodia, said addressing sexual harassment is a global challenge that affects workplaces around the world, from those in Australia to garment factories across this region.

“We know that sexual harassment and the threat of abuse diminish the capacity of workers to achieve their potential and fully participate in their communities and workplaces,” She said, adding that providing women and men with equal power to shape their own lives, contribute to their families, communities and their countries is good for development, but it also makes sound economic and business sense. To properly address an issue as important and as pervasive as sexual harassment requires a strong evidence base.

“There are small issues we received, but much of the cases on harassment are not only sexual, but verbal issues”
Tun Sophorn
Country coordinator, International Labour Organisation

She added that Care (Australia)’s 2016 research into sexual harassment in Cambodia garment factories showed that nearly one in three women experienced sexually harassing behaviour in the previous 12 months.

“This comes at a cost to both business and communities with the impact on the local industry estimated at $89 million per year,” she said.

“So the Australian government is proud and honoured to support and carry out Australia’s three-year generation platform project: Enhancing women’s voices to stop sexual harassment in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.”

Through this project, Care (Australia) is leveraging its research by working with garment workers, the private sector and government stakeholders to develop, test and adapt workplace models for prevention of and response to sexual harassment.

Tun Sophorn, country coordinator for the ILO, says this year and next year, the ILO will create a strategy related to harassment in the workplace for the garment industry.

“There are small issues we received, but much of the cases on harassment are not only sexual, but verbal issues… so we also count it as harassment, he adds.

“The important thing we want to know is what the level of sexual harassment is: How the victims dare to report it because it is related to dignity and sensitivity in  culture.

“We demand workers speak out and we will find a solution to respect their information and a strategy to implement it,” he says.

“We set a clear definition and strategy.

“Now, we do not have clear definition of sexual harassment,” Tun adds.

“I think if Cambodia has a national plan to investigate violence and sexual harassment in the workplace, it is good,” Tun says.

He adds the ILO has an arbitration mechanism on conflict solutions but when it comes to harassment cases, we do not have a special mechanism. When they suffer harassment where should they go to file a complaint, and whether these complaint systems can be trusted and confidential their complaint can be resolved or not.

According to Better Work Asia, in the last few years, there has been an urgency in tackling a perennial issue in the workplace: The issue of sexual harassment. In the context of the #MeToo movement, reports from nongovernmental organisations, trade unions and testimony showcased that sexual harassment is highly prevalent, the group said.

“In our sector, the garments and textiles sector, we have seen some very progressive brands and businesses taking active measures to not only respond to but prevent violence and harassment in their supply chain, to strengthen awareness-raising among their suppliers, recognising that this issue cannot be tackled by individual businesses,” it added.

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