When Lean-In Feminism Reaches the Factory Floor

When Lean-In Feminism Reaches the Factory Floor

When Lean-In Feminism Reaches the Factory Floor

Garment workers in India don’t need life-skills training. They need higher wages.


Malathi, a South Indian woman in her mid-30s with long black hair and a round, expressive face, is among the more fortunate garment workers in Asia. The mother of two, who chose to go by a pseudonym for this story, just started her 12th year at a factory in Bangalore owned by Shahi Exports, India’s largest garment exporter and a supplier to the likes of The Gap, H&M, and Uniqlo. Malathi’s take-home pay of $30 per week is higher than the $22, $24, and $26 her colleagues make on average in, respectively, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. And with a typical workweek of 48 hours, she is spared the excessive overtime endemic to the sector. Notably, especially given the prevalence of factory fires, Malathi has never been in an accident.

What’s more, Malathi’s managers tapped her to participate in a women-only education initiative called Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement, or PACE.

PACE is The Gap’s attempt to boost the incomes of the women making its clothes in India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, and other mostly Asian countries. A recent Gap press release quoted a top manager claiming that the program helps female garment workers “uplift themselves and their families for generations to come.”

Launched in 2007, the initiative was founded with the awareness that even relatively well-off workers like Malathi are still paid poverty wages. PACE offers these women a way out: not by raising their salaries but by equipping them with the professional skills and mindsets to compete for better-paid roles in the factories where they already work.

The factory is to PACE what the modern tech corporation is to Sheryl Sandberg. PACE predates Sandberg’s Lean In manifesto by half a decade, but it perpetuates the same girl-boss ideology. It imagines a fair and just garment sector not as one where value is distributed more equally or where everyone earns a living wage but as one where there are more women ordering around subordinates.

The PACE curriculum covers managerial topics—problem solving, successful task execution, and time and stress management—as well as life-skills, such as financial planning, self-esteem building, hygiene, and nutrition. With the right attitude, this theory seems to say, promotions and financial security are pretty much inevitable.

Over the years, former president Bill Clinton, The Financial Times, Vogue, Forbes, and various NGOs have celebrated the program for its “pioneering business model” and for making sure that “women get their fair share.”

According to The Gap, PACE has changed the lives of more than 200,000 women at 340 suppliers across the world. As the program’s first and most enthusiastic adopter, Shahi says it has trained over 50,000 women in factories in India. The company boasts impressive results: PACE has given these thousands of workers higher “self-esteem” and improved their “efficiency,” allowing these women “to unlock their true potential and fulfil their dreams.”

Intrigued by the emancipatory promise of PACE, economists and business school scholars from Harvard, Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other prestigious schools have teamed up with The Gap and Shahi to study PACE’s impact through randomized controlled trials in factories in Bangalore. There, they surveyed hundreds of women, before and after taking PACE, on things like extraversion, self-regard, “levels of psychological distress,” optimism, hope, perseverance, financial decisions, and “if they expected to be promoted in the next six months.”

The Gap and Shahi sent me these studies as evidence that PACE is changing women’s lives, even though the researchers found only psychological gains—such as “a pronounced increase in extraversion.” But there was little evidence this translated into increased wages. The researchers also don’t explain how Shahi—a company whose factory workforce is 97 percent machine operators and only 3 percent frontline managers—could possibly absorb all the professional ambition that PACE supposedly unleashes.

Nonetheless, the hype around programs such as PACE has only increased. Uniqlo, Levi’s, Walmart, Calvin Klein, Benetton, and Abercrombie & Fitch are among a growing number of fashion corporations that are pouring resources into initiatives that purport to teach women career and life-enhancing skills. While they differ in content—some emphasize active listening and executive excellence, others offer “power and privilege” workshops, a few touch on labor rights—they send workers the same message: If you lean in hard enough and look for solutions inside yourself, the sky is the limit.

Malathi, who took PACE in 2019, has no shortage of confidence, assertiveness, or wits; yet she’s still desperate for a higher wage. She told me she feels stuck in a job where she is “constantly insulted and shouted at” by supervisors who expect her to produce in eight hours what she believes should take 11.

Malathi is among the 26 Shahi employees I met in Bangalore and near New Delhi in late 2019 to ask about their jobs and find out if PACE had bettered their lives. Strikingly, while some said the program contained useful bits—such as lessons on social entitlements or how to divide household tasks fairly among family members—they all made it clear that PACE had made little difference in their lives. They attributed this failure to the fact that PACE ignored and was sometimes even hostile to the women’s actual priorities. What they really wanted was an end to the disparaging remarks from supervisors, the fantastically unrealistic production targets, the climate of fear where even a toilet break could result in public humiliation, and wages so low they can’t properly take care of their families.

In a recent Zoom call, Malathi told me that since the outbreak of Covid-19, Shahi raised the daily production goals even further to compensate for lost orders and income, causing her “extreme headaches and stress” and a feeling of despair over having “no choice” but to accept the daily indignities. “I have to continue [working at Shahi],” Malathi said, “because I have to take care of my children.”

Shahi wouldn’t comment on these problems, but a spokesperson wrote me that the company encourages its workers to “share their queries, suggestions and grievances” via the company’s “suite of grievance redressal mechanisms, [including] worker committees… helpline numbers, suggestion boxes, and a digital communication tool.”

The Gap wrote me that it runs PACE, because the company “cares deeply about the people who work throughout our supply chain” and plans to produce a million PACE graduates by 2022. The company also noted that “training programs alone are but one intervention that can help empower garment workers,” and that The Gap stands “behind the positive impact P.A.C.E. has had on the hundreds of thousands of women who have participated in the program.”

Both in Delhi and Bangalore, women told me their managers routinely berate them as useless and lazy and use slurs like “donkeys” and “piece of shit” to try and motivate the workers. Asking for leave days could trigger additional abuse, workers from both cities said, such as being told that “this is not a charity organization.” In Bangalore, according to Malathi and her colleagues, some supervisors used sexualized and vulgar insults to intimidate workers, accusing them of coming to work “only to show off your body,” or, incredibly, to “play with your pubic hair.”

Malathi once broached the topic of abuse in a PACE session but was essentially told to chill out. According to Malathi, the trainer said to her, “In your family, you have your husband, your father, or your mother yell at you, and you don’t feel bad when they do… you don’t take it seriously. Similarly, you should consider supervisors part of your family and don’t get stressed from what they tell you.”

Other workers recalled PACE trainers advising them to deal with abuse by “asking other workers to help you finish your work” or “nicely ask the supervisor to please stop shouting [but then] give him the numbers he asked for.”

Scared of angering their bosses, many women told me they tried to avoid taking bathroom or water breaks and often rushed through lunch, resulting in headaches, nausea, dizziness, exhaustion, and workers regularly collapsing on the factory floor.

Bathroom visits are hardly a relief for Malathi. Only half of the toilets in her division lock properly, she said, and those that do gross her out. “They are only clean when buyers come to visit,” she said. Most other times they stink so badly that “those of us who work close to the toilets have to hold our noses.” Complaining is pointless, according to Malathi, as her managers will just say “it’s not our problem.” Multiple women in Bangalore echoed Malathi’s disgust with their toilet facilities.

In Delhi, workers said supervisors’ pressure to forego bathroom and water breaks was their main health priority. The topic prompted a young woman by the pseudonym of Indira to note that “there is a discrepancy between what [the PACE trainers] teach us about health and what management does.”

Malathi voiced similar frustration: “It’s good that we learn about healthy diets and cleanliness, but we can’t practice most of it. The special cleaners that I need to scrub the floor properly and the calcium supplements and vegetables I want to give my children, I just can’t afford them.”

When I asked the women to describe their PACE financial planning classes, they used the word “optimistic.” One woman noted that “they make it seem really easy to save money.”

One worker recalled telling the trainer that their wages were too low to set money aside, only to be told that “everyone can save, even if it’s just 10 rupees [$0.14],” a comment she found demeaning.

The Gap wouldn’t comment on these specific experiences but wrote me that “financial planning sessions include skill building on budgeting, importance of savings, and the ability to leverage savings for short and long-term goals.”

The most troubling PACE experience came from Indira, a woman in her mid-20s who has been with the company since she was 18. When asked which class most stood out to her, she talked about a session that dealt with sexual harassment. According to Indira, the PACE trainer at Shahi had instructed the group to “adopt a preventative attitude,” meaning that “if a supervisor or another man asks for our phone number, we should step back, tell him we don’t carry a phone, and keep it to ourselves.”

These instructions contradict the government-mandated sexual harassment training that Indira had previously taken at Shahi, where she learned to use the company’s complaint system. Indira had found that training empowering, a sentiment shared by some colleagues in Bangalore, who said it gave them courage to lodge a grievance. For Indira, PACE reversed these gains. She said being told to instead “show restraint and not talk to colleagues” in the event a male colleague came on to her “instilled fear” and made her more hesitant to speak out. (Two other women who said they attended this same session confirmed Indira’s account of the training.)

Sexual violence is pervasive across the garment industry. In January, 20-year-old Jeyasre Kathiravel was reportedly raped and killed by her supervisor after he had harassed her for months. Kathiravel made clothes for H&M at a factory owned by Eastman Exports, a large Indian exporter that also supplies The Gap.

Since that tragic death, more than 90 groups have urged H&M, The Gap, and other clients of Eastman Exports to sign on to a binding agreement to end gender-based violence. In an e-mail, The Gap acknowledged that such violence requires “an urgent response” and cited its current voluntary partnerships with “industry partners, worker organizations, and gender experts” as evidence of its commitment to workers’ safety. The company wouldn’t clarify if it plans to sign on to the more forceful agreement. When asked to comment on Indira’s account of her PACE class at Shahi, The Gap clarified that the “P.A.C.E. curriculum does not cover trainings on sexual harassment” and that “this content could have come from other curriculum decided upon by the factory themselves or through other programs within the factory.”

When Malathi signed up for PACE, she didn’t know that the first sessions would take place on Sundays, her only day off. Under Indian law, companies must pay workers double for overtime work, but PACE was supposed to be voluntary. Malathi went just once, since, she told me, it’s “the only day I have with my children.”

In an e-mail, Gap admitted that “in the early years of P.A.C.E. programming implementation, one session per module was conducted on Sundays in an effort to cover 3-4 hours of learning content for larger groups,” but that Sunday classes are now the exception.

Turnout on Sundays was so low that Shahi moved the trainings to weekdays, Malathi told me. As she took more classes, she began to understand PACE less as a project to support her and more as a way to help Shahi squeeze value out of her. In practice, Malathi said, sessions on problem solving or communication skills often meant “how to cooperate with your supervisor and be nice with management and listen to them.”

The idea that PACE’s primary purpose is to make workers more productive seemed evident among most women I spoke with in Bangalore and Delhi. “It’s like telling us give us our targets,” one woman said, “but in a really nice way.”

That may sound cynical, but boosting productivity is an explicit objective of PACE. The two evaluations that both The Gap and Shahi sent me as proof of PACE’s success—one of the randomized controlled trials mentioned earlier and an oft-cited 2013 evaluation by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)—make it clear that in their view, it’s precisely PACE’s “carefully calibrated win-win dynamic” and potential to generate a high “return to the firm” that make the program so smart and innovative.

The Gap and other brands want to argue that suppliers can recover the costs of freeing up the time, space, and staff needed for the trainings. A 2020 study into the proliferation of such initiatives suggests that many vendors don’t believe the brands. Of a set of 31 Bangladesh-based factory managers interviewed for this study, 30 said they went ahead with the trainings only “to please the buyers.”

Such skepticism might explain why The Gap’s and Shahi’s research and evaluation partners seem obsessed with proving the program’s financial returns in their studies. So obsessed, in fact, that these researchers seem to have forgotten the original purpose of PACE: uplifting women.

The studies that The Gap supplied barely even look at wages. Instead, they measure and quantify women’s self-reported levels of “resilience, potential, optimism and self-esteem” and ask their bosses how these changes affect their performance.

“Earlier, if [workers] made a mistake,” a Vietnamese manager is quoted as saying in the ICRW study, “they would blame the line leaders. Now [after PACE] I can see that they have improved and are better in communicating. If they make mistakes, they will apologize or will think about it.”

When I read out some of the ICRW quotes to Malathi, she started laughing. The people who wrote that, she suggested, “should come and work in a garment factory for a month.”

The only studies that briefly deal with wages are the randomized controlled trial analyses by academics from Yale and Harvard. Noting that the skills taught by PACE are essential for workers to “maintain motivation to achieve hourly and daily targets,” the authors found that PACE workers were 20 percent more productive and delivered Shahi a 258 percent return on investment. Yet they also found that these workers only made 50 cents per month more than their peers, a finding that led them to conclude that Shahi did not transfer these gains to the workers. (The study also says in passing that 50 percent of the time spent on PACE trainings take place during workers’ own time).

The patronizing lessons, awkwardness, and disciplinary pressure that Malathi, Indira, and their colleagues said they felt during their PACE classes reveal what problems can arise when lean-in charity is wedded to for-profit goals. On the surface, encouraging women to dream big seems harmless or even positive, but the underlying message—that their poverty wage is a result of their skill deficit rather than their structural exploitation and disempowerment—is not.

Even the psychological gains found by the business scholars and economists rest on dubious interview techniques. The academics, for example, asked women to “imagine a ladder with six steps representing the worst to best workers on their production line” and then compare their own performance to other workers. It’s easy to imagine why a worker when asked to report on her mental state, work ethic, and her colleagues’ performance may choose to give strategic answers—especially if her answers are to inform a study that is backed by the boss.

In their responses, both The Gap and Shahi denied that the career enhancement part of PACE was ever about wages. The Gap defined PACE “as a self-awareness and personal development” training program, and Shahi stated simply that PACE “doesn’t deal with the issue of wages.”

Shahi’s actions in 2018 reveal the exporter’s real position on wages. In three private letters sent to the state government of Karnataka in Bangalore, the company urged the government to cancel the then-planned minimum wage increase for garment workers, which was set to raise the weekly minimum wage from $27 to $39, and threatened to “shift their factories…to other states” if the increase went ahead. (The increase was never realized, an outcome that is attributed to successful lobbying efforts by the industry and has led to mass protests by garment workers in Bangalore.)

Around the same time in 2018, workers in a Shahi plant in Bangalore tried to unionize and petitioned management for cleaner water and higher wages. In response, Shahi management reportedly suspended and made death threats to several pro-union workers and instructed their colleagues to beat up these workers. According to the Worker Rights Consortium, who investigated and reported on the violence, some managers referred to the pro-union workers as “whores” that deserved to be assaulted and killed.

Shahi’s initial reaction to the reported violence in 2018 resembled their response to my recent queries: The company said it could not find any proof of the allegations and cited its commitment “to improving worker welfare.”

In the eyes of an Indian business ratings agency, Shahi’s “ways of managing labour costs and strikes” in 2018 explained in part why the company had delivered such good profits that year.

Over the past years, many brands have made commitments to living wages, but then claim it is too complex to implement. In January, labor groups launched the Wage Forward campaign to simplify the issue for clothing companies. The campaign is endorsed by labor and human rights academics at such schools as Cornell University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, and the University of Mumbai and calls on brands to sign agreements with trade unions and other worker representatives, where they commit to paying their suppliers a 25 percent premium on top of their regular prices to ensure workers living wages. Under the deal, suppliers such as Shahi have to print the wage premiums on workers’ wage slips and allow trade unions or worker appointed NGOs to monitor the funds.

The campaign takes the position that garment jobs are not pre-ordained to be awful and that they can be made more decent if profits are shared more fairly. Malathi told me that this approach would be a vast improvement to PACE. She suggested that she sees her managers more as tyrants than role models and that she has no ambition to climb the factory ladder. She said $240 a month, double what she earns now, would be enough to take care of her family. She told me she just wants The Gap to raise wages and “teach our supervisors to respect us and recognize that we have human feelings.”

Neither The Gap nor Shahi wanted to comment on the Wage Forward campaign.

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