By Sarah Gammage
Around the world, most people earn an income by selling their labor. But not all who do so have the same rights and entitlements to contracts, minimum wages, pensions and even protections that guarantee their health and safety. Many of those who work, do so in informal labor markets generating an income by selling produce or selling their labor to a firm or another business. Those who work informally have no income security, are seldom unionized and are rarely afforded statutory labor market protections.
Many international buyers are increasingly concerned about informality in their supply chains, especially as informality and poor conditions of work affect their reputation and undermine productivity within the value chain. The garment industry is no exception. A number of prominent brands have been looking for ways to improve the conditions of work in the global garment value chain and to ensure that workers in factories they buy from have decent and formal work agreements. To do so, some of these brands have introduced initiatives to support and empower the largely female workforce and to improve the terms and conditions of their employment. These initiatives equip workers with skills and knowledge about their rights and create incentives for employers to invest in their workers. This is done with the intention of improving outcomes for workers and for the firms that employ them.
One example is Gap Inc.’s Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement, or P.A.C.E., program, which teaches women the managerial, interpersonal, organizational skills needed to move forward in work and in life. For many years, ICRW worked closely with Gap Inc.’s P.A.C.E. Program, conducting multi-country evaluations which demonstrated that the P.A.C.E. program offers an effective, sustainable and scalable model that yields returns for women, their families and the businesses where they work. Another initiative is Business for Social Responsibility’s HERproject, which provides resources and training to women workers in garment value chains and has been adopted and funded by a number of key brands.
Although these initiatives from multinational corporations and global coalitions have begun to galvanize industry action, there is still much progress to be made. ICRW recently conducted interviews with a variety of stakeholders including union representatives, government, civil society, producers, and cooperatives to understand the challenges women in the workface face and potential areas for improvement of apparel sector supply chains. Based on ICRW’s research, a new BSR report highlights three critical areas for global apparel sector investment to boost the economic empowerment of women workers.
Appreciating the value working women bring to businesses and to their families and communities will encourage suppliers and brands to implement a more holistic, gender-sensitive approach to the apparel industry’s labor force practices. Continued efforts must be made to ensure improved factory standards and sustainability practices, with the specific goal of creating empowering and not exploitative workplaces.