With women representing the majority of workers in the the textile, clothing, and footwear manufacturing sector1, understanding how to create a work environment that will attract, retain, enhance well-being, and motivate performance among female employees is essential for sustainability. Improving working conditions and opportunities for women (and all employees) is an investment, not a cost. Manufacturers can expect to increase outputs and reduce absenteeism, turnover, production errors, and return rates:
The textile, clothing, and footwear manufacturing sector is one of the most important employers of female workers in developing countries and the globe. Work in the apparel sector is often the first formal employment opportunity for many women in low-income countries and is an essential step toward financial independence and economic empowerment. Workforce development programs implemented by brands, suppliers, international organizations, and multilaterals have demonstrated impacts in women’s agency, self-efficacy, financial literacy, health practices, and soft skills – impacting not only their well-being, but also, by extension, that of their families and communities.2
However, without intentionally integrating a gender lens into policies, practices, and operations, the industry may exacerbate gender inequalities that exist. The sector continues to face a variety of well-documented challenges including poor working conditions and incidents of labor rights violations. While both male and female employees are affected by these challenges, women tend to be more vulnerable to these risks than men. Women not only represent the majority of low-skilled, low-wage workers, but they also face unsupportive norms and power dynamics that place them at a disadvantage in job assignments, pay, promotion, and protection against harassment and abuse. Gender may also exacerbate the existing vulnerabilities of specific groups of employees such as migrant, piece-rate, seasonal, or informal/homeworkers. These groups may face intersecting inequalities based on gender, background, or contract vulnerability.
There are specific actions that suppliers can take to integrate a gender lens to ensure the sustainability of manufacturing workplaces. Childcare provisions to ease working parents’ (and predominantly working mothers’) unpaid caregiving responsibility allow employees to be more present at work and enable women to advance along career ladders. Robust anti-harassment and abuse policies, alongside corresponding grievance mechanisms, protect those particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and reinforce a rights-respecting work environment. Upskilling operators to learn skills outside of current roles engages women to occupy higher skilled and technical roles, increasing their earning potential and ability to adapt to new technologies in production and linework, while flexing the facility’s agility to increase and diversify production. Supervisory skills training that builds capacity to foster teamwork, communicate effectively, resolve interpersonal conflicts, and effectively motivate team members can ensure supervisors manage equitably and that gender biases do not influence their communication and management practice.
Other Segments of the Value Chain
While this Resource Hub focuses on opportunities and recommendations for the manufacturing segment of the textile, clothing, and footwear value chain, it is important to recognize that gender considerations remain critical, both downstream and upstream in the value chain. Informality plagues downstream operations in textile, clothing, and footwear value chains. Informal workers beyond Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers, the overwhelming majority of whom are women, face some of the greatest risk and are excluded from the benefits that accompany formal employment. With estimates of informality in the textile, clothing, and footwear value chain ranging from 50-80%, opportunities exist to improve terms and conditions for informal workers and micro-entrepreneurs selling inputs into the supply chain. For example, ensure all input suppliers work under formal employment contracts to ensure decent working conditions and that employment benefits (including pay, social protection, etc.) reach small units and homeworkers.
Further upstream, brand sourcing and purchasing practices can put pressure on suppliers that ultimately result in harmful gender equity practices downstream. Unpredictable purchasing practices cause suppliers to be unable to establish regular production schedules to meet demand, thus resorting to overtime, unrealistic targets, and pressure on employees to meet orders on time. Further, late payments and low prices have undue impact on workers’ compensation. These practices exacerbate time and cost pressures, including increased risk for labor abuses, which are passed directly on to male and female front-line workers. Brands can take responsibility for the impact of their own business practices to proactively prevent and discourage, rather than inadvertently incentivize, practices that are harmful to gender equity downstream, and proactively seek opportunities across their company to balance this risk with the need to respond to consumer demands.
Indeed, gender is a cross-cutting issue for all actors in this sector. Inclusion and acceptance allow all employees to thrive while driving business success. When the most vulnerable groups in the supply chain are supported, including women, equal opportunities are promoted for all. Investing in the strategies described throughout this resource hub has the potential to make the textile, clothing, and footwear supply chain more engaging, fair, productive, and empowering for all.