Audits Are Falling Short for Women

August 1, 2011
  • Racheal Meiers

    Former Director, BSR

Last month, the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights (formerly the National Labor Committee), released a report documenting widespread human rights abuses at a factory in Jordan that supplies apparel products to international buyers. Among the allegations were numerous reports of sexual abuse by facility managers, highlighting a history of abuse by one manager in particular. Buyer responses, to date, have been to cite their commitments to rigorous auditing protocols and established social-compliance standards.

Beyond the exposure of terrible human suffering, the report has broader implications regarding the limitations of social-compliance frameworks and auditing protocols to protect female workers from the unique vulnerabilities they face.

Sexual harassment and abuse, in particular, represent areas where even a robust audit system is insufficient. An audit might indicate that a facility has a sexual harassment policy in place, but is the policy enforced? How are workers expected to report abuses, particularly in cultural circumstances where women are often blamed for sexual violence committed against them?

Throughout the global garment sector, supervisor positions are dominated by men, while low-paid worker positions are dominated by women. It is common to have management come from a different country or culture from the majority of workers as well. In Jordan, for example, the majority of line-worker jobs are filled by migrant workers from South Asia. The gender disparity between supervisors and workers, as well as cultural variances, increases women workers’ vulnerabilities by limiting their ability to communicate effectively and report abuses.

In Jordan, the majority of the apparel industry is audited through the Better Work program, an International Labour Organization and International Finance Corporation joint initiative to standardize audits. A weakness of the program is that it relies on local laws, and the Jordanian Labor Law and its Amendments (No. 8 of the Year 1996) has no mention of sexual harassment in the workplace.

So what can be done? As an immediate starting point, auditing protocols, including Better Work, should become more gender-sensitive and auditors should be trained on how to apply a gender lens to their assessments. Audits should be expanded to include additional indicators for better coverage of areas where women face disproportionate risks, such as sexual harassment and other reproductive health and rights issues.

Beyond monitoring, buyers can be more mindful of the risks female workers face and integrate these considerations into social-investment programs, supplier relationships, and procurement policies. Where significant risks or committed violations have been alleged or identified, buyers can collaborate with each other and with identified suppliers to build robust sexual harassment policies and oversee enforcement of these policies. One best practice that we’ve observed is the creation of women’s or gender committees to inform policy creation and support enforcement.

There are important roles for local government and civil society as well. Female workers, including female migrant workers, must be protected under national law with policies prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace and in export-processing zones. Women, including female migrant workers, should have safe and anonymous resources available to them for health services, counseling, and legal recourse related to sexual harassment, and these services should be available in a language they can understand. International buyers can and should contribute to advocacy and financial support to make these policies and services a reality.

I share columnist Nick Kristoff’s view that, on the whole, factory jobs are good for women’s empowerment. These jobs provide cash income and can promote improved standards of living, health, and well being. And ultimately, they can improve women’s status through economic participation. To realize these benefits for women and for their communities, however, the women filling these jobs must be better protected. Today’s social compliance frameworks are falling short.

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