The Other Women’s Movement: Factory Workers in the Developing World

Photo is by -Niloy-, via Flickr.

May 29, 2013
  • Racheal Meiers

    Former Director, BSR

Note: This is part of >a series of BSR articles on the tragedy in Bangladesh that will look at root causes, challenges, and how to prevent it from happening again.

As the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh makes all too clear, the factory jobs in our global supply chain carry significant risks for the millions of people who fill them—the majority of whom are women under the age of 30. Their work lives consist of sitting and standing in dense lines for up to 12 hours a day (sometimes more), cutting fabric, sewing garment pieces together, placing buttons and collars, printing T-shirt designs, and cleaning stray threads. And they often find themselves vulnerable during their commutes, experiencing verbal and physical harassment from men.

Despite the risks, women actually want to work, and they understand that it comes with significant dangers. In February, I met a 31-year-old woman in Bangladesh who told me she came to Dhaka with her husband (whom she married at 15) to create a better future for their family. He now works in Bahrain in the construction sector, and she uses her factory wages to care for their two daughters. She was clearly proud that her work provided for her children and her independence allowed her to make better choices for them. “I will keep my daughter in school as long as she wants,” she told me. “And I won’t marry her off like my mother did me.”

Factory jobs give millions of women what they can’t get anywhere else: a salaried wage. With it, they can begin to exert control over their future. Factory work isn't just about making clothes; it's also about a potential path toward gender equality. 

Because of this, we must reduce the risks women face and work to improve their lives. Beyond ensuring basic building safety, we also need to invest aggressively in the women employed in these factories to help them realize their full potential.

The global women’s movement in the developing world doesn't yet reach these women, focusing instead on helping the poorest of the poor, cultivating female political leaders, and building the business acumen of female entrepreneurs. These are all important endeavors, of course, but women who work in factories are largely missed: they aren’t poor enough to require the most basic assistance, but they aren’t wealthy enough to access programs targeting women for leadership roles or business development.
Yet in many ways, wage-earning women hold the highest potential in the global economy—both from an economic standpoint and from a gender-equality perspective. We know they are risk-takers, and they’re also influencers. Their wages support multiple family members, and their earning power is respected by whole communities.

BSR's HERproject collaborates with 22 multinational companies to deliver health and financial peer-to-peer education programs that have reached more than 200,000 women in 200 factories and farms in Asia and Africa.

Through these programs, we’ve seen that women in factories need the same things all women do:

  • A structurally safe working environment where measures are taken to limit occupational hazards
  • Strong legal protections at work that prevent harassment and discrimination
  • Compensation and benefits that allow them to excel at work and reap maximum benefits, such as health care and childcare, and access to financial incentive programs like pensions
  • Safe spaces and systems that enable discussion about threats and alleviate concerns like unsafe transportation, gender-based violence, and depression
  • Access to professional development and advancement opportunities

In the context of developed economies like the United States and Europe, these needs are relatively easy to address. In a country like Bangladesh, it becomes more complicated, and the solutions require a whole new level of collaboration within business and across sectors, including government and civil society.

In the corporate arena, compliance systems need to be revised through the lens of gender. Currently, compliance codes tend to be gender neutral, and most auditors are men. Not only are audits not effectively nuanced to glean accurate data on challenges women are more likely to face—sexual harassment, maternity leave, and equal pay for equal work—women are less likely to be forthcoming about these sensitive issues when being interviewed by men.

In the same way, organized labor should become more sensitive to gender diversity, particularly at leadership levels. The focus on pure wage levels and freedom of association, while critical, doesn’t adequately address inflation and impacts on household costs typically managed by women, such as child care, health care, daily meals, and rent.

National governments also have a strong role to play—namely by establishing legal protections for women’s equality and advancement within the labor force, and by guaranteeing social protections and benefits under the law. Governments also must prioritize a safe and compliant industry, to insure that women’s risks are minimized at work.

Bilateral government aid agencies like USAID and the UK’s Department for International Development need to include low-income female workers as target groups, and must invest in their relationships with national government‘s ministries of trade and labor as much as those of health and education to advocate for gender equity and support for women’s equal and empowered participation in the labor force.

Especially where government falls short, civil society groups must be empowered through funding and training to work with local factories to implement programs that support female workers. 

And all of these sectors must work together toward the common goal of empowering low-income working women. It's no small task, but we're making progress.

Through HERproject, we have seen partnerships develop with much success, particularly when the focus is on education. Many factory women left school at an early age and grew up in conservative rural areas where they received limited or incorrect information about important issues like reproductive health, domestic violence, and financial decision-making. When women participate in educational programs that give them this essential information, they learn more about themselves and gain confidence, making them better able to represent their interests at work and at home.

When these educational programs are offered for women through their workplace, the factories benefit, too. HERproject’s health education programs have resulted in significant business benefits, including reduced absenteeism and turnover, and improved worker-manager communications and trust. A Levi Strauss & Company supplier in Egypt saw a 4:1 ROI from the program, for example.

If we can make factory jobs better and more responsive to women’s needs and wants, the empowerment benefits will multiply tenfold. That’s good for poverty alleviation, sustainable business, and most importantly, for the millions of hard-working women who go to work every day with dreams of a better tomorrow.

This article also appeared in the Harvard Business Review blog.

The photo featured in this article and on our homepage banner is used under a Creative Commons (CC BY-2.0) license. Photo is by -Niloy-, via Flickr.

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