On 15th June, FWF’s Lisa Suess participated in the 40th anniversary conference of the Foreign Trade Association. She presented FWF’s work on gender equality in a panel titled Taking a Stand – Ending Inequality and Empowering Women in Global Supply Chains together with panellist from the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, ELEVATE, ITUC, DBL Group and OECD.
Lisa shared learnings from FWF’s long-standing on-the-ground experience in Bangladesh and India. Since 2012, FWF, together with local partners, has been implementing a gender programme in both countries, with initial funding by UN Women. Under the programme, FWF and its partners train factory management, line supervisors and workers on gender-based violence and establish anti-harassment committees.
Lisa: “Awareness raising and capacity building are certainly first and important steps in a process to combat sexual harassment. At the same time, it is crucial to keep in mind that these activities on their own will not be sufficient to fully eradicate gender-based violence, as power imbalances and social, as well as cultural, stigmas persist.”
Through its work in global garment supply chains, FWF has found that gender-based violence against women and men in the world of work is often invisible and also highly underreported. Training can play an important role to increase awareness of workers and management as to what constitutes sexual harassment and discrimination. Common perceptions are often limited to the most grave forms of physical violence, while both national laws as well as international standards also recognise verbal abuse, demeaning punishments and asking for sexual favours as harassment. In addition, factory management is often unaware of the negative impact sexual harassment has on the women workers, which often results in health issues, decreased motivation and productivity and resignations. Commonly, the lack of complaints is interpreted as an absence of problems.
“We want to move factories and brands from a culture of “This doesn’t happen” to “This is an issue and we know how to prevent and address it.” – Lisa Suess
During the panel, Lisa also shared practical strategies that companies can take to prevent, mitigate and address gender-based violence.
Lisa: “The good news is that brands can contribute to gender equality in their supply chains. We often encounter brands which accept that their sourcing practices have an impact on overtime and wage levels, but gender-based violence is perceived as a cultural problem that they cannot influence. The truth is that there is a great deal brands can do.”
Before starting activities on factory-level, FWF advises brands to get to know their supply chain, consolidate wherever possible and commit to long-term business relationships with suppliers that are willing to share a responsibility in improving working conditions.
Lisa: “Without these steps, it will be difficult to achieve meaningful progress on this sensitive issue. We found that suppliers often try to hide incidents of sexual harassment because they are afraid to lose business. Brands must ensure their suppliers that transparency is valued as long as it is linked to a commitment to address sexual harassment.”
In addition, it is crucial to understand that gender-based violence is not an isolated issue, but is interlinked with labour and women’s rights. A lack of legally binding contracts, for example, increases the vulnerability of women workers and makes it difficult to refuse sexual favours.
To address gender-based violence on a factory-level, FWF recommends the following steps:
- Check policies and HR procedures: Policies outlining the supplier’s commitment to sexual harassment prevention, equal career opportunities and remuneration for women and men, but also maternity benefits and child care are a crucial foundation.
- Set up functional grievance mechanisms specific to gender-based violence at factory-level: FWF found that the on-going involvement of local civil society stakeholders, such as women’s organisations or trade unions, are instrumental to achieve lasting impact and trust in the system. Ideally, anti-harassment committees will be the first step toward systematic social dialogue or a vital element of strengthening already existing dialogue structures.
- Commit to reduce production pressure: High production pressure is linked to gender-based violence in several ways; for example, evening overtime hours can make women workers vulnerable to sexual assault, in the factory as well as on the way home. Also, line supervisors who are stressed by high production targets are more likely verbally abuse the workers. Moreover, if bonuses are linked to production outputs, supervisors might have an easier time to request sexual favours in exchange for approving targets.
Therefore, brands have an important role to play in preventing gender-based violence. By supporting reasonable production targets with their production planning, they can have a significant impact on violence against women and men in the world of work.
Lisa: “In addition to these steps, we think another important piece of the puzzle is to actively build skills of women workers and promote them to supervisory roles. This will not only decrease economic discrimination, but also change perceptions of what a woman can do. It will also make it easier for women workers to address possible grievances with women line supervisors.”
Since 2014, FWF has provided training on technical and soft skills for women garment workers in South India who have the potential to become supervisors. Male supervisors are also trained, but on a different material; their module includes communication, team management and prevention of sexual harassment. FWF hopes to expand this programme in coming years.
To learn more about gender-based violence in global supply chains, check out this resource kit.