Gender at Work

by Ariel Visconti

photography by Josh Hotz

As the fashion industry shifted to offshore labour beginning in the 1960s, women in developing countries around the world entered the workforce as garment workers. They soon made up the vast majority of the workforce in garment factories – over 75 per cent today.

But while employment has produced tangible benefits for these women, working in the garment industry – where low pay and poor working conditions are commonplace – is especially difficult for female workers, who experience discrimination and sexual harassment, verbal and physical abuse (at both work and home), lower wages, few opportunities for advancement, and the negative effects on their physical and emotional health of having to balance wage-earner and caretaker responsibilities.

Over the past decade, renewed attention to exploitation in the global garment industry has spurred several initiatives aimed at improving working conditions. Better Work – a partnership between the UN’s International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corporation – is one prominent example. Launched in 2007, the program now operates in 12 countries and 1,700 factories worldwide.

Kelly Pike, an assistant professor of industrial relations at York University’s School of Human Resource Management, says that improving gender equality has always been a part of Better Work’s mandate. Building on her extensive research into Better Work’s impact on labour standards compliance, Pike teamed up with Princeton University researcher Beth English to investigate how Better Work facilitates female empowerment in the garment industry. They summarized their findings in a paper published in the journal Gender, Work & Organization in 2021.

Their study examined how employment in the garment industry translates into changes to household-level gender dynamics within four countries that have adopted the Better Work program (Lesotho, Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh), as compared to one country (Kenya) where Better Work doesn’t currently operate.

The research focused on two important indicators of women’s empowerment: agency and resources. In patriarchal societies, social and economic structures constrain the capacity of women to exert agency in their lives. Empowerment is about building that capacity and expanding their ability to control “tangible” (financial and material) and “intangible” (skills, knowledge etc.) resources.

Pike and English found that women’s access to regular employment, together with Better Work, has increased their financial stability and decision-making power over personal and household resources. Their ability to earn wages, coupled with Better Work training on budgeting and conflict resolution, has reduced household financial stresses while also diffusing family conflicts. In addition, the training has also enhanced women’s self-respect and sense of agency over their economic destinies.

Pike emphasizes that there are significant limits to this progress. The reality is that women’s empowerment through garment jobs will remain constrained in the absence of broader changes to address structural inequalities and gendered power dynamics. 

But she also recognizes the importance of incremental changes that improve women’s “non-transformative” agency, defined as the ability to make change within an existing structure. “At the end of the day, I think it’s about making what seem like relatively minor changes at a household level and moving the needle towards improvement,” she says.

Overall, Pike says, the Better Work program has had a real impact on improving conditions for garment factory workers and has led to important progress in our capacity to understand and address sexual harassment and violence against women. “It’s making strides in a very challenging context,” she says. “At the very least, it’s helping to bring awareness, eliminate worse forms of exploitation and establish minimum standards. In some cases, it is significantly improving workers’ overall well-being, both in the factories and at home.”

But significant challenges remain. Participation in Better Work is voluntary in many of the countries where the program operates and progress can be rolled back in the absence of its ongoing presence, limiting its reach and impact. “We need to look at what it would take for it to be more sustainable and more embedded in national institutions and international agreements,” she says.  

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