Women employed by Asian suppliers of Walmart, the largest retail chain in North America, were subjected daily to slaps, sexual abuse, verbal violence and other kinds of harassment, according to an investigation conducted by a coalition of charities.
The nonprofit investigators conducted interviews with about 250 workers located in 60 factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Indonesia. The 43-page report, which said women were “systematically exposed to violence,” was the result of more than six years of research.
The results of the study were shared with the Thomson Reuters Foundation just a few days before the annual conference of the International Labour Organization (May 28-June 8), which this year will focus on workplace abuses.
“All people see are the glittering, fast-moving and affordable fashion. No one has any ideas about the deep-rooted violence against women that is propagated in the supply chains,” Anannya Bhattacharjee of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an organization involved in the investigation and representing workers in the textile industry, told Reuters.
Bhattacharjee pointed out that the lack of legal protection forces the victims to remain silent, while male dominance within the trade unions is another problem. Moreover, refusing superiors’ advances results in retaliation: Bengali women were fired after reporting their boss to the police.
For Jennifer Rosenbaum of the Global Labour Justice network, the level of “retaliation against workers, and coercion and control” that emerged from the depositions is comparable to forced labor, a new form of slavery particularly present in Asia. According to the World Trade Organization, in 2016 the continent accounted for more than half of the $443 billion generated by global apparel exports, with Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Cambodia as the driving force.
A spokesperson for Walmart said the company is taking the accusations seriously. With its more than 11,000 stores in almost 30 countries, it is one of the most important actors in the battle for workers’ rights. The multinational, together with Gap and H&M, was already accused of labor exploitation in a 2016 report by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, just three years after the catastrophic collapse of Rana Plaza, the factory in the suburbs of Dhaka where more than 1,000 died.
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