The garment industry, concentrated in South and Southeast Asia, employs 60-75 million people, of which 80% are women. This means that roughly 55 million women currently work in textile factories. Most are young, unmarried, and with little education. They are often born in rural areas, and migrate to cities to find work. The garment industry gives them the means to support their families back home. But these employment opportunities are generally open to them because their labour is often inexpensive.
The position of women in society, and theirs in particular, opens the door to exploitation: they have low bargaining power and are considered to be obedient. These social and economic dynamics are systemic, complex and deeply entrenched into the culture.
Yet, employment in the ready-made-garment (RMG) industry still has the potential to help women become independent, because it provides them with an income. In fact, working in factories has made the the gender gap narrower in several spheres, such as participation in the labour force, socio-economic status, control over income and political decision-making. Yet, gender-based workplace harassment and discrimination remain widespread, and many women work under hazardous social conditions. Gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace reinforces gender discrimination and low pay.
FWF in Strategic Partnership
Aware of the unethical and often dangerous labour conditions that exist in the garment industry, Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) launched a Strategic Partnership Plan, together with trade union organisations CNV Internationaal and Mondiaal FNV and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The general goal is to improve labour conditions in South and Southeast Asian and East African RMG supply chains, looking into living wage, reducing gender-based violence and safeguarding freedom of association and collective bargaining, while ensuring a healthy and viable RMG industry.
Over the next five years the partners will execute research and pilot projects, and develop innovative and replicable management strategies for factories and brands. The projects will seek to implement changes to employee training, human resources systems, social dialogue structures, costing systems and brand relationships. FWF’s unique evaluation and reporting system will help ensure that the specific concerns of women are identified, understood and incorporated, leading to more nuanced and more effective strategies that will improve the working and living conditions of female garment workers in the regions where the Partnership is active.
Currently Partnership activities will take place in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam, but the goal is that the management strategies developed by this Partnership can be applied in more areas of the world, and in more sectors, by creating bonds to national and local debates, and to international agreements.
The Partnership and trade union partners
Trade unions have historically played an important role in education and capacity development of women. They provid tools for women to gain more spaces for participation in civil society, and influence men to look at gender equality, and the problem of gender-based violence, through a different lens.
When women are strongly represented in trade unions, the issues that impact women employees the most are addressed more frequently. The partnership will work to further develop the capacity of women in the context of trade unions. It will use the methodologies developed by FWF and by unions to challenge social norms that support gender-based violence. Its capacity-building component will also encourage the active role of women in civil society and their continued engagement in institutions that help them establish their rights in the workplace.
With this partnership, FWF seeks to help women become more effective advocates for their concerns. By establishing, implementing and evaluating pilot projects, FWF and its partners want to show how processes that empower women can be implemented and replicated. And this in turn can contribute to real change in the lives of women workers in the garment industry.