Where are the women?
The majority of workers, yet among the most vulnerable
Download ETI’s Base Code guidance on gender equality
Approximately 190 million women work in global supply chains – in the factories, farms and packing houses that supply the world’s clothing, goods and food.
For many, these jobs offer a promise of economic independence and the hope of a better future for them and their children.
But the reality for millions of women workers is excessive hours often in difficult and unsafe working conditions, and wages that are not enough to make ends meet.
The power imbalance between often male supervisors/managers and a predominantly female workforce, compounded by what society accepts as ‘appropriate’ work for women, means they end up working in the lowest paid and most insecure jobs.
Women are also more vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence, with limited bargaining power and union representation.
Furthermore, people who identify as other genders, including LGBTQI+ workers, can also find it challenging to secure employment, with their rights and needs not covered by national legal frameworks or workplace policies.
Therefore, making progress towards decent working conditions, particularly for women workers, means adopting a holistic approach that changes behaviour and attitudes of both men and women in the workplace.
Good for business, good for gender
Within the global development agenda, gender equality is now firmly recognised as critical to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with Goal 5 specifically focused on women’s empowerment.
Likewise, the benefits to the business world of greater equality in the workplace are numerous including increased productivity, less staff turnover and a healthier work environment for all.
Put simply, gender equality and women’s empowerment is good for business and good for society.
However, employers can struggle to understand the challenges faced by women workers in their supply chains and this contributes to perpetuating gender inequalities.
For example, changing orders at short notice might mean workers have to work overtime to meet deadlines. But this affects women’s unpaid care responsibilities, which they tend to bear the burden of. Not only that, traveling home from work late at night after an overtime shift can increase threats to their safety.
Or, when suppliers are pressured into accepting lower prices, it puts them under pressure to maintain high quality and productivity, with lower financial resources. This can lead to unfair pay or the denial of benefits.
Given their position at the lower end of the supply chain, women workers are often the ones who suffer the most from such practices.
It is therefore important that companies working to respect and protect the rights of workers in their supply chains understand the specific needs and vulnerabilities of women workers, and how their business operations impact on them.
ETI’s approach to gender equality in supply chains
At ETI, we recognise that gender equality is a complex issue that requires a long-term comprehensive approach.
Consequently, our Gender strategy outlines our commitment to support members and other stakeholders towards a world in which women workers enjoy equal treatment with men in the workplace.
We do this in a range of ways, including advisory support to our members, convening multi-stakeholder tripartite platforms, and developing relevant tools and resources that can help our members and other stakeholders to understand and tackle the challenges face by women workers.
In addition, we actively mainstream gender throughout our programmes and operations thus ensuring that gender is part and parcel of our work.
What can brands and retailers do to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment in supply chains?
- Understand that gender is an issue that cuts across all ETI Base Code clauses not just Base Code number seven, which states that no discrimination based on gender should be practiced.
- Integrate gender equality as a strategic part of your ethical trade programme. This entails securing the highest level of commitment and buy-in, and developing gender policies and/or strategies that aim to tackle the root causes of inequality in the supply chain.
- Conduct your due diligence and supply chain mapping with a gender lens. This will help you to understand the differential needs of women and men workers, and the extent to which their rights can be protected. It will also help to inform strategic actions and programmes to enhance women workers rights.
- Engage with suppliers from the start. Bring them along on the journey with you and support them in developing and implementing robust workplace policies based on equal treatment of all workers, ensuring that the voices of women workers in particular, are heard. Work with them to build the skills and capacities of women workers such that they are able to progress towards supervisory and higher paid roles.
- Engage and work with key stakeholders most notably trade unions. Support women to connect to the trade union movement and move into leadership roles.
- Establish partnerships with NGOs that are experienced in women workers’ rights issues and who can help deliver programmes both at workplace and community levels.
- Advocate with local and national government agencies where possible, for improved legal protections for women workers.
Download ETI’s Base Code guidance on gender equality