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Women working at the bottom of global supply chains

Last edited: July 07, 2020

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Paid work creates opportunities for women to realize their rights, express their voice and develop their skills. It also facilitates their access to social protection. However, this is not the reality for many women working in global production, in the lowest segments of global supply chains. In fact, as the ILO Meeting of Experts on Violence against Women and Men in the World of Work noted, “Women are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs, especially in the lower tiers of the supply chains, and are too often subject to discrimination, sexual harassment and other forms of workplace violence and harassment” (ILO, 2016e, para. 14). 

In response to significant levels of gender-based violence at the factory or farm level, multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as the Fair Wear Foundation and programmes such as the ILO-IFC Better Work Programme (discussed below), have promoted decent work in the garment supply chain.

Women garment workers

Significant evidence collected in recent years shows that violence and harassment against women in the garment supply chain has a negative impact on their physical, reproductive health and mental health, as well as on productivity and competitiveness (Morris and Pillinger, 2016). Reports mention women being subjected to regular verbal, physical and sexual violence, as a perceived means of maximizing production line speed (Fair Wear Foundation, 2018).

Good practices focused on strategies and policies to prevent violence against women in the garment sector include (Better Work, 2015 and Morris and Pillinger, 2018):

  • Tackling supply chain factors, such as production pressures, in order to eliminate heightened levels of harassment, because of demands to reach production targets;
  • Addressing long and unpredictable working hours caused by unrealistic production deadlines;
  • Improving working conditions and the working environment in the supply chain, for example, to increase retention of workers and the profitability of garment factories;
  • Implementing fair wages to lessen workers’ vulnerability and encourage retention and skill acquisition;
  • Training managers and supervisors to raise awareness of the harmful effects of violence and harassment and how to prevent it;
  • Using social dialogue at the factory level to improve the wellbeing of workers and implement safety and health measures.

Ending violence against women in the garment sector

Fair Wear Foundation Violence Prevention Programme in Garment Factories

Factories and clothing brands are beginning to work together more effectively to challenge a culture of violence against women and to take necessary remedial action across the garment supply chain. For example, Fair Wear Foundation (FWF), whose members are European clothing and outdoor wear brands, works closely with supply chain actors, governments, business associations, trade unions and NGOs to tackle factors that lead to gender-based violence in the garment supply chain (FWF, 2018; FWF, 2013 and FWF, 2015).

Starting in 2012, in India (Tirupur and Bangalore) and Bangladesh (Dhaka), the FWF Violence and Harassment Prevention Programme aimed at establishing effective systems to address and prevent violence and harassment against women. The FWF programme operated at three strategic levels:

  • at factory level, training of management, supervisors and workers for the establishment and implementation of anti-harassment committees required by legislation in India and a Bangladeshi High Court;
  • at community level, workers’ helplines and support from local workers’ organizations and NGOs; and
  • at international level, to gain leverage of FWF member brands with their supplier factories.  

FWF found that working to end sexual harassment was a useful starting point for employers and unions to develop social dialogue, particularly in factories with no history of management-worker negotiations.

“Working conditions for women have changed dramatically after the intervention of Anti-Harassment programme in our factory... After the Anti-Harassment awareness training, I am able to analyse sexual harassment of many kinds…For the sake of the industry, we should work together to prevent sexual harassment in all workplaces, so that more women join at work”, Ms Morsheda, President of an Anti-Harassment Committee in India (UN Women, 2015b).

 

Better Work: Tackling sexual harassment in garment factories[1]

The ILO-IFC Better Work Programme’s experience indicates that reducing concerns about sexual harassment increases productivity, profitability and overall business performance (Brown et al, 2014 and Lin and Brown, 2014). The Programme’s research has identified certain factory practices that are correlated with the likelihood of sexual harassment. The research suggests that sexual harassment can be reduced by aligning supervisor and worker pay incentives, investing in the labour-management skills of supervisors and creating greater factory-wide awareness of the problem of sexual harassment (ILO and IFC Better Work, 2013).

The Better Work Programme demonstrates that management practices and workplace policies and training can feed into a better working environment, therefore decreasing women workers’ concerns of sexual harassment.

Women agricultural workers

In the agricultural sector, there are reports of a high prevalence of violence and harassment against women, including women migrant workers (Henry and Adams, 2018). Women agricultural workers often work in the informal economy and are affected by laws that restrict their right to own land, which decreases their economic independence and places them in a situation of vulnerability (Human Rights Watch, 2012). A number of initiatives in this sector show that, by addressing the root causes of violence against women - such as gender inequality and women’s lack of power - real change is possible. 

Good practices show the following measures can contribute to reducing risks of violence in the agriculture sector (International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2017):   

 

  • Increasing women’s participation in trade unions, enabling them to claim their rights at work;
  • Strengthening women’s leadership and political participation;
  • Implementing Codes of Practice, workplace policies and collective agreements that address the underlying causes of violence and harassment in the sector;
  • Implementing prevention programmes, trusted complaints processes and mechanisms to enhance women’s voice.

Ending violence against women in the agriculture sector                                                   

The Fair Food Program and Worker-driven Social Responsibility: Coalition of Immakalee Workers

The United States Fair Food Program is a multi-stakeholder initiative that shows how workers, businesses, retailers and consumers are all part of the solution to workplace sexual harassment.  Established by the Coalition of Immakalee Workers (CIW), the programme is based on the principle of “Worker-driven Social Responsibility”, where workers play a leading role in the monitoring and protection of their rights (Human Rights Watch, 2012). A related Code of Conduct includes prohibitions against sexual harassment, the right to report abuses, fair wages and safe working conditions. Compliance is checked through regular, independent monitoring by the Fair Food Standards Council. Under the Code, responses to sexual harassment can include immediate corrective action and curtailment of purchases from participating buyers. The participatory health and safety committees required under the Code create a space for workers to address sexual harassment as an important health and safety issue in a collaborative process with their employers. As well as adopting the Fair Food Code of Conduct, participating growers agree to participate in a worker education programme - including issues of sexual harassment - on company premises and company time.

Hivos Women @ Work campaign and ending sexual harassment in horticulture[2]

In Kenya, the NGO Hivos piloted a method to end sexual harassment in flower and vegetable farms. All key actors are engaged in a constructive dialogue on how to achieve safeguards against sexual harassment. In a collaborative effort, each party has agreed on its specific obligations, thereby creating a broad policy ownership, as well as a sustainable system of checks and balances. Trade unions monitor companies’ compliance as one of the conditions in their collective bargaining. Certification organizations align their standards and compliance indicators. Workers participate in workplace grievance redress mechanisms to support the implementation of the policy. Civil society organizations pass on their knowledge and document the experience, and governments enable the development and enforcement of responsive laws and policies.

The Women @ Work programme also directly targets Dutch companies to ensure they adhere to international labour standards, the ILO Decent Work agenda and the OECD guidelines.        

UN Women – Unilever global partnership to improve women’s safety in the tea industry (Unilever, 2017a)

In 2013 Unilever announced a number of measures to create dignified and violence free workplaces. This led to the development of a global partnership with UN Women to improve women’s safety in the tea industry in 2016. The human rights-based ‘Intervention Programme to inform the development of a Global Framework on Women’s Safety’ is being implemented across Unilever’s supply chain in the tea industry. It aims to ensure that women are socially, economically and politically empowered. Unilever has a commitment to implement policies and processes in its companies and across its supply chain that women trust, with an emphasis on addressing prevailing social and cultural norms and behavioural factors that can increase women’s risk of violence and harassment.



[1] For further information about Better Work’s activities in improving conditions in the garment sector, see: https://betterwork.org

[2] For further information about the HIVOS (online) Women @ Work campaign see: https://hivosannualreport.org/womens-empowerment/safeguards-against-sexual-harassment-on-african-horticulture-farms/#. Hivos (online) A Model Sexual Harassment Policy for the Flower Sector in Eastern Africa:

https://www.hivos.org/sites/default/files/stop_sexual_harassment_project_0.pdf

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