Women in value chains: towards equitable participation

In this blog, Jo Morris reflects on how to achieve more equitable participation of women in global value chains.

The international research programme Capturing the Gains presented some general research conclusions about the way in which a more equitable participation of women in global value chains (GvCs) can be achieved through effective private, public and social governance. The research highlighted the way in which collective bargaining brought positive results for women workers. This is a key element of Fair Wear Foundation’s Strategic Partnership with trade unions CNV Internationaal and Mondiaal FNV, funded by the Dutch Foreign Ministry.

The 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 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’.

One issue that was highlighted in all industrial sectors researched by Capturing the Gains was the importance of ‘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’. Preventing violence and sexual harassment is a key component of the FWF Strategic Partnership.

But promoting the rights and participation of women in the garment industry requires a range of responses, at various levels. Capturing the Gains research highlighted:

  • Skills shortages: Skills are essential to meet quality and standards required for economic and social upgrading. A key finding is that in many locations there is an increasing shortage of appropriate skilled labour. Investment in women’s training, and better remuneration and conditions, would help attract and retain a larger pool of skilled workers.
  • Women workers as an asset: The value of women’s contribution to quality output needs greater recognition and remuneration. Proactive strategies are needed to educate and train women workers (not just men). Women need better promotion opportunities and career paths, particularly in jobs considered ‘male’. Female mentorship programmes can be established to guide women who are entering traditionally male jobs.
  • Social compliance and codes of labour practice: Civil society organizations (CSos),often led by women, have highlighted women’s poor working conditions in GvCs. Companies have responded with codes of labour practice to avert bad publicity. These have helped regular workers, but casual workers (women) are often overlooked.
  • 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 rights and voice: Studies showed a strong association between social upgrading, union representation and international and national civil society advocacy. In Kenya and Uganda, hospitality unions advocated against workplace sexual harassment and have collective bargaining agreements with major hotels. In African floriculture, international CSos, such as Women Working Worldwide, joined forces with national CSos and trade unions.
  • Legislation and trade policy: Gender equality legislation is often poorly implemented or inadequate and hindered by the dearth of gender-disaggregated evidence. Government promotion of women in GvCs can help in pursuing a ‘high road’ to economic and social development.
  • Better public safety and transportation for remote and nightshift workers are simple first steps of wider policy interventions to assist women workers. Government-CSO-union collaborations can be effective in providing training to help companies reduce sexual harassment and, as in for example horticulture, promote gender equality and better health and safety in the workplace for men and women.
  • Trade agreements and aid for trade initiatives may include social clauses, but these 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.


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


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