What’s moving the needle on gender equality in the apparel industry?

The garment industry provides jobs and opportunities for millions of women across Asia. Yet despite being the backbone of the industry’s workforce, gender inequality is still prevalent across the sector.

Women are paid less than men, have fewer opportunities for advancement, suffer from violence, harassment and discrimination at work, and lack voice and influence in decision-making. At home, women also bear the burden of unpaid care work which affects their opportunities.

These issues are by no means new, and considerable effort has been expended over the years to address many of them. But of all the actions taken, what really made the difference?

In July 2020, the International Labor Organization (ILO) Asia Project on Decent Work in Garment Supply Chains, funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), launched a public call to identify promising practices. A number of industry stakeholders responded, sharing lessons learned from their initiatives to address gender inequality in the sector.

An analysis of the submissions was conducted and common themes were identified. The results have just been published in a new report entitled “Promising Practices, Experiences and Lessons Learned in Addressing Gender Inequalities in the Apparel Sector in Asia.” The report aims to help build a shared knowledge base on ‘what works’ in the garment sector and identify key actions to close the gender gaps.

“Gender issues in the garment sector receive a lot of attention. However, many activities are ad hoc or occur in isolation and rarely feed into broader learning or change at the policy level. While it is vital to take action, it is equally important to learn from what is already happening to help eliminate gender inequalities and drive lasting change,” said Joni Simpson, Senior Specialist for the Gender, Equality and Non-Discrimination at the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. .

Several key themes emerged from the process.

Multi-stakeholder social dialogue is key to success
Social dialogue and collaboration among industry stakeholders, such as governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations, brands, civil society and international organizations, is key to advancing collective action to to close gender gaps.

Whether the dialogue takes the form of negotiation, collective bargaining, consultation or exchange of information, it is essential that women are represented and that their voices, issues and leadership roles are genuinely prioritized.

Many submissions to the ILO reflected these elements. In Bangladesh, Fair Wear brought together various stakeholders to establish common priorities and actions, forming a task force to contribute to a new national law on sexual harassment in the workplace.

Meanwhile, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Better Work Indonesia used a social media campaign to promote dialogue between management and workers on contentious issues such as wages, benefits, and safety and security. Health at work.

Capacity building should be holistic and go beyond the women in the factory
While efforts directed at women can advance knowledge about rights and skills in the workplace, actions that do not include all partners, including men, or that go beyond training are likely to have a limited impact.

Effective interventions require commitment, cooperation and participation at all levels of the organization, including plant management, supervisors, workers and brands.

In its workplace education program on violence and harassment prevention, Fair Wear found that the active inclusion of senior management significantly increased ownership while decreasing drop-out rates. Likewise, the inclusion of production managers ensured that training did not interfere with production plans and goals.

An evaluation conducted by CARE International found that where supervisors were not supportive of worker training, conflict in the factory could increase, although this could also be a consequence of newly trained workers raise more concerns.

Efforts must be implemented over time
Successful interventions go beyond a single training or activity. Efforts should be integrated into a gender-responsive strategy implemented over time. This consistency, coupled with ongoing follow-up opportunities and strong monitoring and evaluation, can drive lasting change by shifting workplace norms and expectations.

For example, BSR’s HERrespect project, aimed at raising awareness of workplace violence and harassment, runs a 12-month on-site program. In a factory assessed in 2019, the perception that offensive comments from supervisors were normal fell from 32% to zero.

By repeatedly defining and practicing positive gender norms, workplaces can transform their cultures and improve workplace norms for women and men, while supporting other business outcomes.

Legislation and shared frameworks are key
Formal agreements and legally binding measures are needed. While verbal commitments can lead to positive action, on their own they often lack the incentives needed to bring about substantial change, especially when factories face disincentives or have no stake in program success. For example, managers may resist harassment training for fear that it will lead to increased reporting of inappropriate behavior, with associated risks to their business.

Additionally, although some companies have policies, if there is no legislation or industry agreement in place, progress towards closing gender gaps will continue to be uneven across the sector.

Fair Wear reported that legislation in India and the High Court directive in Bangladesh on the enactment of anti-harassment committees in the workplace have enhanced the credibility and support of anti-harassment trainings, compared to other countries without such legal requirements.

“Through this work, we have identified a number of key ingredients needed to close the gender gaps in the Asian garment sector,” said David Williams, project manager for Decent Work in Garment Supply Chains Asia. “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.

About the author: Steve Needham is Senior Communications Officer at the International Labor Organization’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. It was previously based in Bangladesh supporting the work of the ILO to improve working conditions in garmentsinvestment sector.

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Michael O. Stutler