When the #MeToo movement hit the fashion world, it exposed a scourge of sexual abuse tainting the runways and red carpet. But while change may be coming to the houses, the fashion world has yet to grapple with the gender-based violence faced by the women who keep the garment-supply chains running.
Now human-rights advocates have mapped the global garment workforce to show how gender-based violence hurts women across the supply chain. The survey of workers in fashion-brand-supplier factories in Asia—published by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, CENTRAL Cambodia, and Global Labor Justice—explores the reach of the global manufacturing network and how it ensnares workers daily in a system of economic exploitation.
The reports, which focus on fast-fashion retailers Walmart, H&M, and The Gap, were designed to coincide with a global summit on supply-chain labor conditions held by the International Labour Organization. To inform ongoing political dialogues on women’s labor in the Global South, the report highlights how, in places like Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Indonesia, women’s experiences follow similar patterns of coercive and dehumanizing conditions, limited access to legal justice against abusers, and barriers to freedom of assembly and democratic representation in the workplace.
The documented experiences of women workers sheds light on how the #MeToo moment could reverberate in the Global South. While the #MeToo conversation in the United States has begun turning toward women workers’ rights, it could also become, the coalition says, a chance to “create a strong framework guided by the leadership of trade unions and worker organizations that will provide employers, multinational enterprises, and governments a blueprint for eliminating gender based violence in the workplace.”
The roots of the problem are glaringly obvious, woven into the basic infrastructure of global production networks. To maximize profits, the coalition argues, Western multinationals capitalize on transnational trade networks to “shift market relationships between firms from trade relationships to quasi-production relationships without the risks of ownership.” Through the dispersal of production, companies effectively farm out (and outsource responsibility) for labor oversight, benefits, and other overhead costs.
At the factory level, workers face brutal workplace discipline and even the risk of violence—a reflection of a workforce culture that demands nonstop productivity and strict labor-management hierarchy.
As a result, the researchers write, “International capital relies upon gendered ideologies and social relations to recruit and discipline workers, producing segmented labour forces within and between countries.” The self-reinforcing gender roles in the workplace encourage the “patriarchal infantilization of women workers,” leaving them “especially vulnerable to physical, verbal and sexual harassment, and violence.” And in a factory system in which eight in 10 workers are women, a male-dominated management structure compounds their oppressive isolation.
The violations Walmart factory workers described ranged from sexual harassment to intimidation to beating. One woman recalled the abuse she suffered for refusing her manager’s advances: “He offered me a salary increase and a promotion if I agreed. When I did not, he threatened to fire me. I was anxious and afraid.” She was dismissed shortly afterward, without explanation or recourse.
At two Cambodian factories, women faced constant verbal abuse, such as “being told, ‘you have a pig brain, not a human brain.’” A woman harassed by her boss was threatened with an acid attack by his wife.
Typically, with few other stable job opportunities in their communities, workers are locked into poverty and exhausting schedules that often impose forced overtime. Yet there are many laws on the books to protect these workers; enforcement is simply nonexistent in many cases. The actual level of rights and protections workers are afforded are shaped in large part by Western brands’ vague corporate social responsibility codes, which are non-binding, so supplier factories have little incentive to comply other than a notoriously weak international auditing system run by the company. The industry may impress consumers and shareholders with corporate-ethics talking points, but most garment workers’ lives are dictated by the impossible choice between feeding their family and defending their dignity in the workplace.
The lack of corporate accountability is both a symptom and a cause of limited access to unions. In Bangladesh, about two in three workers did not even know if they had the right to unionize at their factories, and just one in 20 was actually able to collectively bargain through a union.
The report calls for a new global accountability system, starting with a more proactive definition of the social dimensions of gender-based violence at work. This can begin with simply broadening the definition of a worker to include those working at home, producing trimmings and accessories in household workshops; temporary, casual and contingent workers; and jobseekers, volunteers, trainees, interns, and laid-off and suspended workers. Likewise, workers deserve equal protections regardless of social background, disability, or immigration status.
The definition of an abuser should extend beyond just managers to also cover mid-level supervisors, customers, and fellow workers, along with employment agencies that feed off labor-trafficking networks, and multinationals that should be bound by a domestic or international justice system.
To be universally enforceable, new regulations should reflect global human-rights standards established in United Nations and OECD guidelines, including “the right to a living wage,” freedom from forced labor, decent social benefits such as health and safety protections, access to housing and education, and welfare provision for children and families.
Yet enforcement is only as strong as the workers’ power to defend their rights at work and to the degree that women are empowered as stakeholders in their communities. Jennifer Rosenbaum, US director of Global Labor Justice, says, “At the end of the day, workers and their workplace-level trade unions also have a critical role to play in defining structural change from the bottom up” in both planning and monitoring the implementation of standards. Full gender representation is a major goal: “Expanding women’s collective leadership and agency at all levels is also fundamental to long term structural change in the global economy.”
The supply chain of the global fashion industry braids together injustices of gender, borders, and class. Unless consumers, labor, governments, and industry enable women workers to unbind themselves from the violence of global capital, #MeToo won’t reach some of the workers most impacted by gender-based violence and abuse.