This next blog in our series considers how to apply learning on gender from initiatives in agriculture to the global fashion industry, using the Women Working Worldwide and Banana Link’s Gender Equity Framework.
The global fashion industry relies heavily on the ‘nimble fingers’ of women and girls, who are seen as ‘naturally’ endowed with sewing and finishing skills and willing to work for lower pay than men. Women workers can also be seen as more compliant than men, thus less likely to organise to resist the low pay, long hours and precarious working conditions that manufacturers rely on to meet the low prices and tight deadlines that international buyers have come to expect. Although women make up the majority of the workforce in many countries, very few progress within the industry, to managerial or supervisory positions.
These adverse conditions can have serious and sometimes fatal consequences for women workers seeking a way out of poverty through employment within global supply chains. Recent examples include occupational health issues in Bangladesh, mass faintings due to excessive working hours in Cambodia, the pre-Covid murder of a young female factory worker at the hands of her male supervisor, on the back of regular reports of young women workers’ suicides in the same production hub in South India.
Many brands and businesses in global fashion and textiles have made commitments to improve the lives of the young women workers who work within their supply chains. Several have also initiated projects and programmes to improve training, complaint mechanisms or workers’ committees within their supply chains.
While positive, these initiatives rarely address the underlying issues at the heart of women’s precarity: their low pay rates and the insecurity of their work. Casualisation reduces labour costs by cutting out holiday and maternity pay. Employers may not have to pay (and workers may not accrue benefits from) social security contributions. If women are employed informally, as day labourers or contract workers, they have weak bargaining power over pay and conditions, whether they join unions or (more usually) not. They can also all-too-often be put in difficult position when a male member of staff responsible for allocating such work makes unwanted sexual advances.
Research by Women Working Worldwide and others has shown that women in precarious employment are far more likely to suffer sexual harassment. Without change on the underlying issue of precarious employment, women are unlikely to be able to take the risk of speaking out if they face harassment or abuse. You can put grievance mechanisms in place, but if women workers’ livelihoods – and often as a consequence, their ability to feed their children - are at stake, it is hardly surprising if very few make use of such channels.
In contrast, if women are paid properly, have a clear contract of employment, and can raise issues with the support of a union, they will be much more likely to report incidences of harassment and abuse. As a result, abusers are more likely to be challenged and the working environment for everyone will improve.
So, what are our recommendations?
- Promote well-paid and secure permanent employment for women with your suppliers. Monitor supplier wages, and whether there is a gender wage gap. Create an incentive to suppliers to come on this journey by linking this with your supplier selection and retention processes.
- Treat precarious employment as an indicator of dysfunction within your supply base. Monitor the proportion of your workforce who have irregular employment, and whether precarious employment is linked to gender, ethnicity and or caste.
- Promote steps to reduce precarity: Seasonal or temporary workers shouldn’t have to reapply for the same jobs year after year. Day labourers and homeworkers should not be dependent on the whim of a male intermediary who decides how much work – and therefore income – they receive each week.
- Encourage and support good industrial relations at your suppliers so that workers, especially women, are able to discuss and negotiate over working conditions.
- Support trade union efforts to reach out to women workers and include them in organising, training and leadership roles, building on examples of good practice (e.g. Latin American banana workers’ unions) that show what can be achieved when trade unions reach out to women workers and then embed gendered issues within wider collective bargaining processes).
- Provide safe, accessible and effective mechanisms so that women workers can raise grievances with their employers. Involve workers and their unions in developing these so that mechanisms are trusted by workers and do not undermine efforts by trade unions to represent women workers.
- Recognise that homeworking can be an effective way to keep experienced women workers in the workforce, whilst their children are small, so that they can return to factory work – and potentially progress to a supervisory position - at a later stage in their careers.
- Address the barriers which may prevent women taking up skilled and supervisory roles, by making them as flexible as possible, providing good quality childcare, and relevant and accessible training (e.g. to use new technology or to build leadership skills and confidence).
- Promote women into leadership roles – so that their views and concerns will be represented at managerial level, and to give other women role models and female leaders that they can turn to if facing harassment or abuse.
- Train male managers and staff, to ensure that they are ready to work effectively with their female colleagues, and to challenge any entrenched discriminatory attitudes.