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The Garment Industry Can Close the Worker Gender Gap. Here’s How.

What will move the needle on gender equality in the garment industry? For starters, dialogue, men’s involvement, good legislation and time, a new report from the International Labor Organization (ILO) revealed.

“Gender issues in the garment sector receive a lot of attention,” said Joni Simpson, senior specialist for gender, equality and non-discrimination at the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. “However, many activities are one-off or take place in isolation and rarely feed into wider learning or policy-level change.”

The Asia-Pacific region employs an estimated 65 million garment workers, accounting for 75 percent of the sector’s workforce, the agency said. The majority, roughly 35 million, are women. Nearly one in five women in Cambodia are employed in garment manufacturing. In Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the ratio is roughly one in seven; in Bangladesh and Myanmar, it’s one in nine.

Yet despite myriad interventions and investments toward closing the gender gap in recent decades, persistent inequality, exacerbated by Covid-19, continues to loom large. Women are still paid less than men and are given fewer opportunities for career advancement. At work, they face rampant workplace violence, sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination. Conditions aren’t much better at home, where women bear the brunt of unpaid care work and family responsibilities, limiting their time, availability, mobility and access to training and educational opportunities.

Women, more so than men, are given short-term contracts and other non-standard forms of employment, such as informal piece-rate and home-based work, that exclude them from social protection, healthcare and maternity benefits, the ILO said. When the pandemic hit, women who were pregnant, nursing or on maternity leave were more likely to be targeted for layoffs in several countries, including Bangladesh, according to the report.

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In July 2020, the ILO’s Decent Work in Garment Supply Chains Asia project, funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), launched a public call to identify “enabling factors” and other promising practices. Several themes emerged among the responses it received from a number of industry stakeholders.

Social dialogue and collaboration with multiple stakeholders, such as governments, trade unions, employers’ organizations and local and international non-governmental organizations, for instance, is “critical” to advancing collective action. This usually involves negotiation, collective bargaining, consultation and exchange of information, though there can be nuances depending on the local context. Whatever form social dialogue takes, it’s essential that women are represented and their voice and leadership “meaningfully prioritized” in order for it to be “effective and gender-responsive,” the report said.

In Bangladesh, for example, the Fair Wear Foundation rallied different stakeholders to create a working group to tackle a new national law on sexual harassment in the workplace. At the height of the coronavirus crisis, Better Work Indonesia employed a social media campaign to foster dialogue between management and workers on prickly issues such as wages, benefits and occupational safety and health.

The ILO said that capacity building must not only be comprehensive but it has to also move beyond women on the factory floor. Gender gaps, it said, are “rooted in social norms that prescribe certain behaviors, responsibilities and skills to specific genders,” meaning that only a “transformative agenda” that includes gender-responsive policy change and supports efforts to create respectful workplaces can propel efforts forward.

The Fair Wear Foundation found, for instance, that actively including senior management in their workplace education program on violence and harassment prevention significantly increased ownership of and commitment to improving outcomes, as well as decreased the likelihood of participant attrition. The organization also discovered that including floor managers helped ensure that training sessions didn’t interfere with production plans and targets, or that when they did, they could be rescheduled or participation negotiated.

Conversely, an evaluation conducted by CARE International found that when supervisors were unsupportive of worker training, conflict on the factory floor could flare up, especially when workers tried to communicate and raise issues as a result of the programs. CARE International also found that workers’ families sometimes reacted negatively to women’s participation in activities if they took place after working hours, sometimes accusing them of neglecting their domestic responsibilities.

One thing to keep in mind, the ILO said, is ​​that successful interventions transcend a single training or activity. In other words, improvements must be integrated into a consistent and systemic strategy that is implemented over an extended period of time. It’s only through ongoing efforts, with multiple opportunities for follow-up, monitoring and evaluation, that can create “lasting change by reinforcing a shift in workplace norms and expectations,” the report said.

An example the ILO cited is BSR’s HERrespect project, which the management consultancy designed to raise awareness of workplace violence and harassment through the on-site delivery of six modules over a period of 12 months. An evaluation of the program’s work in one factory in 2019 found that the proportion of participants who saw supervisors punishing employees as a normal and acceptable occurrence decreased from 50 percent to 6 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of women who felt uncomfortable reporting an instance of sexual harassment fell from 57 percent to 10 percent, while the number of participants who believed that suggestive or offensive comments from supervisors were normal dropped from 32 percent to 0.

Better Work’s program, too, operates on a one-year timetable, and includes assessments, advisory visits, industry seminars and custom training opportunities. It’s this “comprehensive approach” to labor standards and working conditions, the ILO said, that has resulted in a reduction in excessive overtime, probationary contracts and gender pay gaps in participating factories. The longer companies participate in the program, it added, the higher the level of improvement.

But voluntary measures alone are insufficient, the report said. Though verbal commitments can trigger positive action, they often lack the incentives needed to drive substantial change without additional formal agreements and legally binding frameworks. Factory managers, for instance, may not want to implement training sessions on violence and harassment because they fear that increased reporting of inappropriate behavior could jeopardize future business.

Without legislation or sectoral agreements, progress towards shrinking gender gaps will “continue to be uneven,” the report said, and the sector will “pay the cost” in terms of competing outcomes and poor enforcement. By “creating a shared baseline and reducing competition based on poor labor standards,” it said, progress can keep pace more effectively.

The Fair Wear Foundation said that legislation in India and the High Court directive in Bangladesh on the enactment of workplace anti-harassment committees have provided “increased credibility and support” for implementing anti-harassment training, compared with other countries where such requirements are absent.

More recently, the ILO Violence and Harassment Convention (No. 190) and Recommendation (No. 206), which were adopted in 2019, represent a “significant step forward” in tackling gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work. Since the convention’s adoption, the ILO said, national and international NGOs, international organizations, trade unions, businesses and governments have worked together to lobby for its ratification by individual countries.

Last week, H&M signed a watershed agreement to end gender-based violence and harassment at one of India’s largest garment suppliers following a year-long campaign to obtain justice for a young Dalit woman who was raped and murdered by her supervisor.

“Through this work, we have identified a number of key ingredients needed to close gender gaps in the Asian garment sector,” said David Williams, manager of the Decent Work in Garment Supply Chains Asia project. “By showing what can be done and how, this report can inform future policies and actions that could greatly benefit the garment industry and all its workers.”