Improving standards for women working in global sourcing

Professor Stephanie Barrientos shares how she is working with multinational companies to improve the rights and wellbeing of women involved in the global production of goods.

Global sourcing has generated hundreds of millions of jobs in Africa, Asia and Latin America, producing everything from chocolate bars to trainers. Many of these jobs are undertaken by female workers in low-income countries, contributing to their economic development.

Global problem: gender discrimination and exploitation

The growth of global retailers and brands has been fuelled by the commercialisation of many activities previously undertaken unpaid by women within households. Women are drawn into paid work in factories and farms to produce the ready-made garments, processed food and personal care products we buy.

Gender discrimination in these industries is endemic. The number of women in lower-paid and precarious work is highly concentrated in each link of global value chains. Yet women’s skills are critical to attaining quality, cost efficiencies and speed of delivery. The value they create and enhance is disproportionately captured by suppliers, agents, retailers and brands further along the chain.

We need to challenge the commercial logics that drive gender discrimination of workers and implement a more gender-equitable system.

Dr Stephanie Barrientos / Professor, Global Development Institute, The University of Manchester

However, women workers are not necessarily ‘passive victims’. Accessing paid work can provide economic independence and has opened up space to challenge social norms. This can take many forms, such as individuals exiting jobs, collective organisation through trade unions, or collaborative participation through NGO advocacy and campaigns.

Campaign groups and the media regularly expose exploitative conditions many workers face, but access to paid work can be empowering for women workers, especially in countries where they previously had limited access to labour markets.

The solution: influencing corporate companies to improve gender equality

Many multinational companies are also waking up to the fact that ensuring female workers are treated well isn’t just the right thing to do; it also makes good business sense.

I’ve been working with companies, including Nike, Marks & Spencer and Cadburys (now owned by Mondelez), who are all implementing plans to increase gender equality across their operations.

Nike’s Equitable Manufacturing programme in Indonesia has enhanced engagement of women workers, productivity and quality have increased, while women anonymously self-reported feeling 22% better valued. Mondelez’s Cocoa Life programme in West Africa has enhanced support for women engaged in cocoa farming, contributing to increased cocoa yields, which has translated into increased investment in their farms and their children’s educations.

Too many women are exploited in global value chains, but positive changes are happening. Women and civil society are pushing for change and we need to do more to support them. We need to challenge the commercial logics that drive gender discrimination and exploitation of workers and implement a more gender equitable system of global governance that involves companies, civil society and government.

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