Economic and Social Upgrading in Global Production Networks

In this blog, Jo Morris shares more about casualisation of female labour, and the role of women in global production networks

Firms in the North and South increasingly outsource production and services to developing countries through global production networks. Experts from North and South came together to research and promote strategies for fairer trade and decent work. The resulting programme, Capturing the Gains, aims to develop knowledge on employment and wellbeing of workers and small producers in global production networks.

The large-scale research programme focuses on global value chains to examine economic and social upgrading in business communities across the developing world. It explores the connections between business competitiveness and social prosperity. This is done with attention to firm innovation, trade expansion, labour standards and decent work. The programme’s research allows policy- makers and business leaders to better understand the relationship between business growth and poverty reduction in the global South.

The role of women in global production networks

As many value chains include a high proportion of female workers there is an interesting emphasis on women workers and their role in upgrading production processes. The research finds that global value chains (GVCs) offer important opportunities for women worldwide to earn a living–garments, tourism, mobile phones and commercial horticulture are good examples. Women can play a vital role in supporting value chain upgrading–as workers, farmers, producers and consumers. Yet women’s skills are often undervalued and they are stuck in low-status jobs.

Work in GVCs is potentially empowering for women. But policy and commercial strategies need to proactively support the more equitable participation of women, because this enhances value chain upgrading, improves women’s lives and promotes more inclusive development.

But casualisation affects women disproportionately. Despite demands for higher quality, commercial pressures have led to (mainly female) labour working increasingly under short-term, temporary contracts, if they receive a contract at all. In a segmented workforce of permanent, contract and casual workers, price pressures and extreme competition tend to lead to an intensification of casual work situations. In many sectors, especially where there are global value chains, women casual workers are on the increase, but they often lack social protection or the ability to become members of a union, and are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and other forms of workplace violence.

Towards equitable participation

The position of women can be strengthened through effective private, public and social governance, according to the Capturing the Gains research. A very important element is collective bargaining, a key element of FWF’s Strategic Partnership. Researchers found that improved conditions for women workers (contracts, maternity leave, paid overtime, higher basic salaries, improved health and safety) were frequently the result of collective bargaining arrangements with local trade unions. The concluded that ‘collective bargaining agreements provide channels for negotiating better conditions, a more positive workplace environment and reduced sexual harassment and so have positive productivity impacts. More can be done to promote gender equality within unions, such as promoting women’s union leadership and the interests of casual workers. Collective bargaining agreements between industry associations and unions, and bringing labour brokers into the agreements, could be encouraged’.

For this to happen, it is also important to establish ‘workplace policies to address discrimination and sexual harassment and support women workers’ rights (to) attract and enhance women as a skilled, productive and committed GvC workforce’. Fair Wear Foundation is also contributing through preventing violence and sexual harassment through its projects in the Strategic Partnership. Yet more is required.

  • It is essential to invest in women’s training, provide adequate remuneration and condition, to attract and retain a larger pool of skilled workers. This will help address the skills shortages faced in many locations.
  • Women workers should be seen as an asset, and their contribution needs greater recognition and remuneration. More proactive strategies are needed to educate and train women workers to reach positions of responsibility. Women need promotion opportunities and career paths, also in jobs considered traditionally male.
  • Improving the working conditions of casual labour, which tends to be particularly female, is important. Often, codes of labour practices help regular workers, but casual workers still work under very poor conditions.
  • Monitoring must effectively address gender discrimination and the particular concerns of women workers. Buyers can create incentives, train and help suppliers to implement social compliance measures that take on board temporary workers’ concerns, and address demands for a ‘living’ wage and gender equality.
  • Enabling the rights and voice of women is paramount.  There is a strong relation between social upgrading, union representation and international and national civil society advocacy. Participation, and leadership, of women in trade unions should be advocated, encouraged, and facilitated.
  • Gender equality legislation is often poorly implemented or inadequate and hindered by the lack of gender-specific evidence.
  • Better public safety and transportation for remote and nightshift workers are simple first steps to assist women workers. Government-CSO-union collaborations can be effective in providing training to help companies reduce sexual harassment and promote gender equality and better health and safety in the workplace for men and women.
  • Trade agreements and aid for trade initiatives require a stronger gender focus. There is a need to extend preferential trade agreements that support women-dominated value chains.
  • Women’s empowerment: Working in value chains provides millions of women with jobs and incomes – which can bring greater economic independence, social connections and voice. Development can open doors to new life opportunities. These are powerful reasons to support women and greater gender equality in GvCs.

For more information, read the Capturing the Gains briefing note Women in Value Chains: Making a difference.



Jo Morris is  Visiting Professor in Practice, London School of Economics and Political Science, Gender Institute.  She is FWF’s gender expert.

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