Women who work in Asian factories making clothes for the global retail giant Walmart are at "daily risk" of slapping, sexual abuse and other harassment, rights groups said on Friday.
Based on interviews with workers in 60 Walmart supplier factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Indonesia, a coalition of charities said women were "systematically exposed to violence" and faced retaliation if they reported the attacks.
The charities said they found widespread sex harassment, verbal and physical abuse such as slapping and threats of retaliation when women refused sexual advances from bosses.
"This is a very urgent and serious issue," Anannya Bhattacharjee of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a group which represents garment workers, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "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."
The alliance, which probed the abuses with four other groups, said in a 43-page report that the incidents represented the tip of the iceberg. Stigma and the risk of retaliation means that many women keep quiet, according to the rights groups.
"The difficulty is women don't feel comfortable to report. How can they seek intervention from the unions when the union leaders are mostly men?" said Khun Tharo from the Phnom Penh-based charity Center for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights. "There is no legal mechanism for them to file complaints."
Campaigners said the level of pressure and harassment faced by the workers in the study was approaching forced labour.
"Any time you have retaliation against workers, and coercion and control ... you are coming close to the line of forced labour," said Jennifer Rosenbaum with Global Labor Justice, a trans-national network of worker and migrant organisations.