After years of public condemnation of poor wages and working conditions, the global garment sector is starting to lead the way in paying workers a living wage and working with independent unions. However, to become industry leaders in workers’ rights and the fight against modern slavery, garment brands must pay more attention to one particular issue: the protection of female workers.
Garment production is one of the most female-dominated industries in the world, with women constituting over three-quarters of workers in the sector globally. The majority of these are low-paid, informal workers concentrated in developing countries where gender discrimination runs deep. As a result, women working in the garment industry are more vulnerable than men to conditions of modern slavery, driven mainly by booming exports to meet the demands of fast fashion. But what does this mean for garment producers?
Firstly, it is clear that the distinct challenges women face in the workplace increase the risk that garment producers will be exposed to violations of women’s rights. Clothing brands are now facing increased scrutiny over the treatment of female staff in supply chains, particularly in regions where women experience high levels of discrimination. Therefore, investors face social risks in key garment-producing countries.
According to Verisk Maplecroft’s current Women and Girls’ Rights Index, countries like India, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Turkey are classified as extreme risk for violations of women’s rights.
Discrimination in society leads to discrimination in the workplace
Violations of women’s rights in the garment sector in many developing countries frequently stem from traditional gender roles in the societies in which they live. In factories in these countries, supervisors and managers are predominantly male and many of them perpetrate physical and sexual violence against female staff. Women in factories can often feel unable to speak out about this violence due to cultural and social barriers that prevent them from doing so. They may also find it hard to escape violence since many do not have the financial security to be able to quit, or feel unable to speak out due to the social stigma of experiencing abuse.
Inherent gender discrimination also means that girls do not have the same educational opportunities as boys. They often leave school earlier and less skilled, and are therefore more likely to be trapped in low-paid, exploitative jobs, such as those which exist in parts of the apparel sector. This is an issue of particular concern in India, a key supplier for some of the world’s largest clothing brands. A recent report by international NGO, Sisters for Change, found that conditions of forced labour are widespread among the 400,000 female garment workers in Karnataka, the textile capital of India. According to the research, one in 14 experience physical abuse at work, while one in seven has been raped or sexually assaulted.
Similar cases have been documented in the garment sector in Turkey, which is one of the largest exporters of apparel to the EU. It is estimated that there are currently between 250,000 and 400,000 Syrian refugees working illegally in Turkey, many within the textile industry. Without the right to work, and with many incurring debts to smugglers and intermediaries, employers wield significant power over refugees. Sexual abuse of women in Turkish factories is common, and reports of sexual acts, even against child laborers, are increasing.
According to the registry of modern slavery statements hosted by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, only 12 global textile and apparel companies have so far produced statements as required by the UK Modern Slavery Act. These statements outline the steps the companies have taken to ensure there is no modern slavery in their supply chains. However, the act does not provide criteria on what should be included in statements, and as a result, companies are not required to report specifically on women’s issues.
By comparison, introducing the living wage and working with unions are relatively simple steps for brands to take. The real challenge for the garment sector is addressing the systematic social imbalances that occur in the patriarchal societies from which they source. Education has a key role to play, and many manufacturers are now starting to invest in training their female staff in health, safety and the right to live free from violence, as well as implementing independent grievance mechanisms for reporting instances of abuse.
However, until violence is eliminated in factories, women will continue to be exposed to conditions of forced labour. Brands have a responsibility to ensure that violence against women is not taking place in their supply chains, and those that tackle violence will make significant progress in the fight against modern slavery. Therefore, the most effective statements under the UK Modern Slavery Act will be those that explicitly address women’s issues and demonstrate effective ways of measuring and tackling discrimination and sexual violence.
By Michelle Carpenter, Human Rights Consultant at Verisk Maplecroft