Joint UN-World Bank Group programme shows that gender equality can also translate into increased productivity
Better Work, a joint initiative of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation, today launched a comprehensive, five-year gender strategy to empower women, reduce sexual harassment and close the gender pay gap in the global garment industry.
The new strategy aims to promote women’s economic empowerment through targeted initiatives in apparel factories, and by strengthening policies and practices at the national, regional and international levels.
“Through its research and on-the-ground experience, Better Work has shown that investing in women is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” said Better Work Director Dan Rees. “We have seen that training female supervisors can increase factory productivity by up to 22 per cent, for example, so this strategy is about collaborating with partners to scale up what we know works.”
Although women represent around 80 per cent of the workforce in the garment sector worldwide, they are concentrated in the lowest-paying, lowest-skilled occupations. Gender-based discrimination during recruitment processes and sexual harassment in the workplace remain widespread. Social norms and the predominance of working mothers also contribute to a sizeable gender pay gap, with female factory workers earning up to 21 per cent less per hour than their male counterparts.
Better Work’s gender strategy aims to unite partners from the public and private sector to address these issues in four ways: by working to reduce discrimination and sexual harassment; promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights, maternity protection and work-life balance; increasing representation of women in worker and employer committees and organizations; and, helping women develop career opportunities.
The strategy was launched at the Regional Conference on Women and the Future of Work in Asia and the Pacific, a two-day event sponsored by the Australian Government and the ILO aimed at highlighting the tools and policies needed to ensure that women have an equal share in the region’s economic potential. In the conference’s opening address, Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, Dr Sharman Stone, acknowledged the significant achievements of the programme to date for women and children. “Workers in Better Work factories report higher morale, lower rates of abuse and exploitation, and fewer instances of sexual harassment. And these impacts continue beyond the workplace, with more children enrolled in school and healthier than before.”
Speaking at the Better Work launch event, Australia’s Deputy Head of Mission to Thailand, Octavia Borthwick, outlined why her Government is supporting the new strategy. “Better Work’s efforts on gender serve as a particularly apt demonstration of the power of partnerships to drive women’s economic empowerment,” she said. “Placing the emphasis on the business case is the right way forward, since addressing gender inequality would trigger up to USD17 trillion in global value.”
Her comments were echoed by Tomoko Nishimoto, ILO Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific: “Work is changing and there is a real risk that the prospects for women will become even more challenging over the coming years. Anticipating these challenges is critical as we won’t achieve our shared goals of poverty reduction and decent work for all if women cannot play an equal role in society and the workplace.”
Better Work – a collaboration between the United Nations’ ILO and the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group – brings together all levels of the garment industry to improve working conditions and boost the competitiveness of apparel businesses. Currently active in eight countries reaching more than two million workers, the programme creates lasting change through assessments, training, advocacy and research.
An independent study of Better Work by Tufts University showed that the programme had decreased the gender pay gap by up to 17 per cent, reduced sexual harassment concerns by up to 18 per cent, and increased women’s access to prenatal care by as much as 26 per cent. The report also demonstrated that a workplace free of harassment leads to higher profitability and that quality jobs for women have knock-on development impacts including better health for workers and their family members and improved education for workers’ children.