By: Ruby Veridiano
It’s no secret that the fashion industry impacts thousands of women around the world. But while mainstream media is often focused on the women who buy the clothes, it is the women who make our garments, fashion’s hidden figures, who are drastically affected by the decisions businesses and consumers make. With the rise of ‘feminist fashion’, it leaves one to wonder what the industry is actually doing to support women across the supply chain.
The C&A Foundation, in partnership with the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) recently released a new report, entitled “Empowering Female Workers in the Apparel Industry”. The report primarily covers the three main actions businesses can take immediately in order to shift the industry towards gender equality. The research also received support from the Levi Strauss Foundation, and was prepared by Business of Social Responsibility (BSR).
[Ruby Veridiano, contributor here at the Global Daily], got a chance to interview Brandee Butler, Head of Gender Justice and Human Rights at the C&A Foundation, to learn more about the main takeaways of the study, and to get a fuller understanding as to how the fashion industry can truly empower and uplift women.
You’ve focused your study on empowering women in the apparel industry. How is the apparel industry unique in regards to the treatment and involvement of female workers, in comparison to other industries?
Women workers face similar challenges across global supply chains. The apparel industry, however, is one of the largest employers of women. Women make up about two-thirds of the global apparel workforce. And in some of the major producing countries, that ratio is even higher. Women make up about 85% of the workforce in Bangladesh and Cambodia, for example.
Why is this a priority for the C&A Foundation?
We believe that you can’t talk about sustainability in fashion without talking about women’s rights. That is why we have integrated a gender justice lens in all of our programs at C&A Foundation. Women’s rights are the center of all sustainability.
Tell us about the woman who works in our apparel production. Who is she, what is her life like, what concerns her? What does she dream about?
Depending on the region, a typical garment factory worker might be a young woman, with little education or skills, who migrates from a rural province in search of better economic opportunity. She is single and does not have children. A job in the garment industry is her first paid employment, and one of few options.
At work, perhaps in a factory or sub-contracted workshop, she works long hours for little pay. Compared to her male colleagues, she makes lower wages, and is less likely to be promoted. She lives with other workers to make ends meet, but lives a precarious existence. She witnesses, or herself experiences, verbal, psychological, and/or physical abuse. Any illness or injury could set her back, leading to a cycle of indebtedness to cover basic living expenses.
Like most of us, she dreams of a better future for herself and her family, including access to education, good health, safety, financial security, and happiness.
In your research, you identified three critical areas for global apparel sector investment in regards to empowering women: addressing informal work arrangements, ending gender violence, and recognizing childcare needs. Can you elaborate why these are the most crucial areas of focus, and how and why they are interconnected?
These emerged as particular areas of opportunity based on International Center for Research on Women’s (ICRW) analysis of existing programs, and interviews with stakeholders across the industry including unions and worker organizations. From the research, it was clear that these three areas were among the most significant barriers to women’s advancement in the sector, and yet, they were not adequately being addressed.
A.) Lack of Affordable, Quality Childcare
The research found there is a widespread lack of affordable, quality childcare which limits women’s ability to work and may force them to leave the labour market, or confine them to informal or home-based employment, where they are particularly vulnerable and often exploited.
B.) Informal Labor
The industry relies heavily on informal laborers and decentralized, sub-contracted networks of producers which make it difficult to enforce labour rights. A large proportion of women work in informal employment because it affords them flexibility to work while tending to household responsibilities, and because of a lack of good childcare options as earlier noted. But without contracts or access to union representation, and with little to no transparency in this part of the supply chain, they are especially vulnerable to low wages, excessive hours, exploitation and gender-based violence.
C.) Gender-Based Violence
Gender-based violence (GBV) is harm that manifests because of unequal gendered power relations. Globally, it is a pervasive barrier to women exercising their rights. It is also endemic throughout the apparel supply chain. The most common forms are psychological, physical, and verbal abuse. Sexual harassment and abuse are particularly common. Reliable data is hard to come by because the topic is so taboo, but research by Fair Wear Foundation found that around 60% of workers in Bangladesh and India experienced harassment. A more recent study by CARE Cambodia found that one in three women workers had experienced sexual harassment within the past year alone.
Women’s economic empowerment is indubitably, an important area of focus. Your study names eight building blocks that make up economic empowerment for women, what are they? What does it mean to solve this issue of economic empowerment in a ‘holistic’, ‘integrated’ & ‘strategic’ manner?
This research builds on an earlier study conducted by ICRW and Dalberg Advisors which suggests businesses can reap a higher ROI across the value chain for women’s empowerment efforts that take on an integrated approach – meaning one that addresses the underlying structural barriers to women’s empowerment and utilizes all of a company’s potential levers to create impact. These levers may include employees, investments, brand, customers, purchasing power and partnerships.
Based on a human-rights framework, the report further outlined eight building blocks companies could use to implement an integrated approach including: access to equitable and safe employment; education and training; access to and control over economic resources and opportunities; voice in society and policy influence; freedom from the risk of violence; freedom of movement; access to and control over health and family formation; and social protection and childcare.
While this study focuses on businesses’ social responsibility, what can consumers do to help move the needle on this issue? How can they urge businesses to take better, more complete action?
Consumers wield tremendous influence. They can help improve outcomes for women garment workers by:
- Staying informed and powering consumer movements like Fashion Revolution and Re/make
- Supporting organizations working on these issues including women’s funds that help grassroots, women-led groups tackling these issues on the frontlines, or watchdog NGOs that hold businesses to account.
- Demanding that your government representatives legislate and enforce policies that protect women’s rights in global value chains.
- Exercising your purchasing power. Ask brands and retailers questions about what they are doing to advance women’s rights, and buy elsewhere if you are not satisfied with the answers.
This post is part of the “SDG Solutions” series hosted by the United Nations Foundation, Global Daily, and +SocialGood to raise awareness of ways the international community can advance, and is advancing, progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. As the international community prepares to gather at the UN for the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development from July 10-19, this series will share ideas and examples of action. Previous posts in the series can be found here.