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ILO: Women Garment Workers Face Biggest Covid Fallout

While the Covid-19 crisis has dealt an unprecedented blow to the global garment industry, the “gendered impacts” of the pandemic mean that women have been disproportionately affected by the fallout, according to a new report.

Female garment workers, the International Labour Organization (ILO) said, are facing increased discrimination and harassment, underrepresentation, wage gaps and unevenly shared unpaid care and family obligations. Many of these disparities are unlikely to recede once the threat of the coronavirus is over, the report noted. In fact, without “effective amelioratory actions,” such inequalities are likely to widen, jeopardizing previous gains in poverty reduction and gender justice. This is especially concerning because of the dearth of women’s representation from Covid-19 response and policy discussions.

“Women account for approximately 80 percent of the garment sector workforce, so they are heavily affected to start with by many of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Joni Simpson, senior gender specialist for the ILO’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement. “However, women also experience additional impacts due to the existing challenges they face in the workplace as well as expectations regarding women’s obligations in the home.”

To help women cope with the short, medium and long term challenges on the pandemic, the ILO recommends that decision makers design and implement gender-responsive measures and policies based on the “needs and realities” of different groups of women, men and others. Countries should focus on retrenchment and closure practices, promoting access to financial inclusion, and establishing and maintaining social safety nets that are accessible to both women and men.

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To ensure that women are able to fully participate in the workforce when factories resume operations, decision makers must address their disproportionate unpaid care obligations and provide relevant support. Efforts to address the coronavirus should take into consideration the unique ways that women and men may encounter the effects of the disease at work, at home and in their communities.

Because of the uptick in violence and harassment of women, it is crucial to double down on efforts to ensure a safe and respectful workplace, including policies and management systems, referral services and training for managers. Particular attention should be paid to how workplace systems and changes in production may present different safety risks to women and men, the ILO said.

Since women are at the frontlines of the Covid-19 response as caregivers and community mobilizers, it is equally important to give them a voice in policy and decision making around these responses. Efforts to engage women alongside men at worker, employer, buyer, government and intergovernmental levels should also be cognizant of the ways Covid-19 impacts may subdue women’s involvement, and “should include gender-sensitive opportunities for women to participate,” the report said.

“It is crucial that governments, businesses and other stakeholders understand the multi-dimensional impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on both women and men workers, and design policies that enable a smart, sustainable and gender-responsive recovery,” said Jessica Wan, Better Work gender specialist. “Otherwise, the Covid-19 crisis threatens to exacerbate pre-existing inequalities and will hamper the social and economic sustainability of the garment sector.”

Previous ILO research found that major buying countries’ imports from garment-exporting nations in Asia plunged 70 percent in the first half of 2020 due to the pandemic, resulting in a spike in worker layoffs and dismissals from factories operating at reduced capacities.

The Asia-Pacific region employed roughly 65 million garment workers in 2019, comprising 75 percent of all garment workers worldwide. The ILO estimated that the average worker lost out on at least two to four weeks of work since the outbreak, and only three in five have returned to production lines.