H&M, Gap to probe sexual harassment in factories

A Bangladeshi woman works at a garment factory in Dhamrai, near Dhaka (AM Ahad/AP)

A Bangladeshi woman works at a garment factory in Dhamrai, near Dhaka (AM Ahad/AP)

Fashion giants H&M and Gap Inc vowed to investigate reports that garment workers who supply their high-street stores routinely face sexual harassment and violence.

Based on interviews with some 550 workers in 53 H&M and Gap supplier factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, rights groups said women were at “daily risk” of violence and faced retaliation if they reported the attacks.

The coalition investigated factories for several years as efforts mount to push Western brands into improving safety along with their supply chains and render them “slave-free”.

Clothes stitched by low-paid workers — part of a complex global supply chain — end up on high-priced Western high streets with some 4750 H&M stores located in 69 countries and about 3700 Gap shops operating in about 90 nations. 

High-end clothes

Sweden’s H&M — the world’s second largest clothing group after Zara owner Inditex (ITX.MC) — said it would review the findings of the recent report by the civil society groups and unions.

“We will go through every section of the report and follow up on [a] factory level with our local teams based in each production country,” a company spokesman said in a statement on Tuesday.

“All forms of abuse or harassment are against everything that H&M group stands for.”

US retailer Gap said it was “deeply concerned about the troubling allegations raised by this report”.

“Our global team is currently conducting our due diligence to investigate and address these issues,” a spokeswoman said.

The charities said they had found widespread sexual harassment, verbal and physical abuse — such as slapping — and threats of retaliation when women refused sexual advances from bosses. 

Forced Labour?

A separate report published last month by the coalition of rights groups found similar abuse of women at supplier factories in Asia for US-based Walmart, the world’s largest retailer.

Walmart said last month it was reviewing the “concerning” accounts cited in the report.

The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), a group of trade unions, firms and charities of which both Gap and H&M are members, said it expected the retailers to work with the suppliers to ensure that women have swift access to remedy.

“These allegations are deeply concerning,” said Debbie Coulter of the ETI. “Gender-based violence is unacceptable under any circumstances, and brands need to make sure that women working in their supply chain are protected.” — Al Jazeera

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