For more than 20 years, Verité has seen how gender inequality exacerbates labor and human rights abuses in global supply chains. Inequality based on gender comes in many forms including restrictions on the types of work women do, limited access to labor protections, and disparities in compensation. In honor of Women’s History Month, we would like to take this opportunity to touch on the many ways in which Verité sees, and seeks to change, differential impacts on women from prevailing supply chain dynamics in a variety of sectors.
Ingrained gender norms affect the types of work women do. Beyond the preponderance of women in the domestic sector, Verité assessments show that in apparel factories women tend to work in lower paid stitching and sewing positions while maintenance, security, and management jobs are exclusively held by men. Even in factories where a majority of the workers are female, nearly all of the supervisory and management positions are held by men. This can result in an environment where female workers do not come forward to report even the most egregious abuse or sexual harassment. The lack of representation of women among factory management can also mean that women’s needs are not articulated such as the desire of female factory workers in India to improve the quality and availability of on-site childcare or the desire of female workers to have safe transportation to and from their workplace.
Laws that restrict women’s occupations further exacerbate the gender divide. Through Verité’s research into dozens of emerging markets countries for institutional investors, we have found multiple instances of laws barring women from working in specific jobs including mining, carpentry, and firefighting. Though these laws are an attempt to protect women, in reality they may make women less safe. For example, women are prohibited from working underground in Colombia. This law, coupled with job shortages in the formal sector, has led women to work in and around illegal mines where they face hazardous conditions, no government oversight, and are vulnerable to labor and sex trafficking.
Even when women are protected by labor regulations, they may not be aware of their rights or feel empowered to seek help if they are violated. In Taiwan, a pregnant woman is entitled to specific protections and benefits, yet female migrant workers that we interviewed who are eligible for these protections were misinformed by labor brokers or supervisors and believed they must leave their jobs and return to their home countries if they become pregnant. In Malaysia, foreign migrant women must resign and return to their home countries if they become pregnant; in Mexico, some employers force their female workers to take pregnancy tests; and in Ecuador, nursing or pregnant mothers on some palm oil plantations earned less money or were forced out of their jobs because of their condition.
Female migrant workers also face particular challenges related to labor rights violations. Some companies explicitly recruit women because they are thought to be more compliant and less likely to dispute their working conditions. In the United States, Verité has found that foreign-born women working in the garment sector are at high risk for minimum wage violations. Women are also increasingly the primary workers in agriculture and as they migrate they become even more vulnerable to human trafficking and forced labor.
Disparities in compensation are even more apparent in informal workplaces where female-dominated jobs are concentrated. This can be seen in many sectors where workers are paid based on production (quantity of goods produced) as opposed to being paid based on the hours worked. Piece work, as it is called, often occurs in agriculture (e.g. per 100-pound sack of coffee or ton of sugar cane harvested) or in the apparel sector (e.g. per piece of clothing produced).
In these situations, the male head of household is the official worker and receives payment for the pieces produced by the whole family, including women and children. This gives him control over the family finances and while the payment may be equal to the minimum wage for a single worker, the women and children in the family remain uncompensated for their labor. Since women and children are not paid directly, multinational companies can remain protected from accusations of forced and child labor. Verité’s work on the coffee supply chain in Guatemala has found many instances of workers being paid by the piece.
Similar scenarios play out with factories that engage in unauthorized sub-contracting. When a factory needs to increase production, management may sub-contract to informal workshops or to individuals working in their homes to address capacity issues while skirting health and safety, overtime, and wage regulations. Like piece work, many of these informal jobs fall to women who are unprotected and under compensated.
Building on our research and work in more than 70 countries, we partnered with the San Francisco Department of the Status of Women on the Gender Equality Principles Initiative (GEPI) to develop web-based self-assessment tools focused on promoting gender equity in the workplace. Companies as diverse as McKesson, Deloitte, Google, and Gap have been recognized for using the award-winning Gender Equity Principles to drive change in gender performance. Verité looks forward to continuing to work with companies, governments, and other stakeholders to provide them with the knowledge and tools to address gender issues in global supply chains.
For more information, please contact Lydia Long.
Moussou N’Diaye, a Verité Intern, contributed to this article. For more information about Verité’s Internships, visit our Careers Page.