SDG#5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Gender equality in the workplace is an ongoing issue that can be seen globally. Several industries have their workforces primarily made up of women but the fashion industry, in particular, is highly female dependent. Fashion consists of 60 million garment workers, 80% of which are women ranging in ages between 18-24 years (Remake, 2019). This makes fashion a hot topic when we consider the actions associated with employing so many women in an often unregulated labor market. With the COVID-19 crisis highlighting flaws within our existing systems, it is now more than ever that we see where companies need to step even more to protect their laborers and aid them with appropriate healthcare amenities.
As we know, to meet the high demand from consumers but still keep garment costs low for quick consumption, fast fashion companies rely heavily on inexpensive labor. Over the last several decades, the fashion industry has made an intentional choice to shift towards countries such as Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines to meet their budgeted labor and manufacturing needs. Women working in these factories across any section of the supply chain are especially dependent on daily wages to contribute to their household income (Good on You, 2019). These women in most cases do not have a choice other than being faced with the pressure to agree to come to work, willing to work for less than $1 US dollar an hour and due to the highly unregulated system, are overworked most days. For many women with families, they are expected to work a “second shift.” At times these mothers are expected to work overtime to earn money to support their families financially and are also expected to come home and take care of their children and the household.
There are added pressures to being a female worker in an unregulated workforce that are often female-specific. There’s not only the added level of being vulnerable to verbal abuse but also sexual abuse. Upon investigating, a study displayed statistics, which outlined that 75% of works in the garment industry employed in Bangladesh have been verbally abused at work, while 20% have come forward as victims of physical abuse. The Global People Strategist (2018) found that added pressure for female employees could also be found in India and Cambodia by being dismissed for a myriad of reasons. These reasons include but are not limited to: dismissal due to pregnancy, the denial of maternity leave, the inability to join or form unions, and forced overtime at the risk of losing their employment. Furthermore, testimonies have surfaced from Bangladeshi women which bring to light further inhuman practices which as bladder infections due to a lack of bathroom breaks through the day, managers forcing women to take contraceptive pills to ensure they will be able to continue working, and inadequate sanitation in factories (ibid).
It has been found that in India and Pakistan, women who have come forward and reported the verbal and sexual abuse have been threatened with termination. Alternatively, these women are also threatened to be transferred and be forced to uproot their lives, as well as those of their families as punishment for standing up for themselves. There is little that can be done with the current systems in place for women across the supply chain. Upper management, who is traditionally tasked with helping solve problems for their employees are often working against these women. Instituting strict anti-union policies to further stifle their voices within the workplace. The Human Rights Watch (2019) argues that women from more conservative backgrounds feel as if they don’t have the right to speak up against their superiors or raise awareness about subpar work conditions. This is where education awareness of equal rights and gender discrimination is important, knowing what you are entitled to as an employee is the foundation of quality work conditions.
Shelter-in-place orders, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, have caused problems in the supply-chain which have negatively impacted workers. Traditional agreements between brands and manufacturers state that companies do not pay for their orders until they have been shipped. According to data and research provided by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, $1.5 billion worth of garments have been canceled across about 1,100 suppliers, while $2 billion have been put on hold (Vogue Business, 2020) which is adding insult to injury amidst this crisis. Many of these workers have a halt on their paychecks due to the canceled orders during this unprecedented time. However, these workers deserve to be protected and given ethical working conditions amidst the crisis and beyond!
As consumers, it is our responsibility to be aware of what we are buying, while also considering who is making our clothes. This awareness is a way to contribute and do our small part in protecting women in this industry. We need to participate in a more conscious consumerism and support brands that uplift and empower women. Women already have voices, they just need to be heard! They need to be given the right platform to speak their truth about their stories and careers. Brands have the power to be transparent and present themselves in an ethical manner. We are striving to reach the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal #5 on a global scale. Join us and take part in raising awareness to help these workers in the fashion industry.
Aim for the moon and if you miss you’ll land among the stars.
Author: Divya Kopparapu
Editors: Hailey Matarese and Alondra Magana
Veridiano, Ruby. “What Does Gender Equality Have To Do With the Fashion Industry? Everything.” Remake, 19 Aug. 2019, remake.world/stories/news/what-does-gender-equality-have-to-do-with-the-fashion-industry-everything/.
McCosker, Jaclyn. “The Impact of Fast Fashion on Women in Developing Nations ...” The Impact of Fast Fashion on Women in Developing Nations, Good On You, 5 Aug. 2019, goodonyou.eco/the-impact-of-fast-fashion-on-women-in-developing-nations/.
“Gender-Based Abuse, Violence, and Harassment against Women Garment Workers in Asia Uncovered.” Global People Strategist, 21 June 2018, www.globalpeoplestrategist.com/gender-based-abuse-violence-and-harassment-against-women-garment-workers-in-asia-uncovered/.
“Combating Sexual Harassment in the Garment Industry.” Human Rights Watch, 2 Apr. 2019, www.hrw.org/news/2019/02/12/combating-sexual-harassment-garment-industry.
Cernansky, Rachel, and Annachiara Biondi. “Retailers Tell Suppliers They Won't Cancel Orders. The Reality Is More Complicated.” Vogue Business, 6 Apr. 2020, www.voguebusiness.com/sustainability/retailers-tell-suppliers-they-wont-cancel-orders-reality-more-complicated.