Made in Asia: the business case for investing in gender rights in supply chains

  • Published: 6 September 2017
  • Author: Clelia Daniel

Acting to safeguard the rights of female workers is not only the right thing to do, it’s also good for business. A number of businesses, including SAP, Unilever and Vodafone, are investing in gender equality initiatives in their operations and throughout their supply chains in recognition of the impact that gender equality has on a companies’ behaviours and performance at all levels. It is good business sense to make such investments in supply chains as well and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) believes that improving women’s access to assets and enabling them to fully participate in all aspects of agribusiness could be the key to overcoming pressing challenges of this industry. In their publication; Investing in Women along Agribusiness Value Chains, IFC reviewed women’s contributions and constraints within each stage of the value chain and presented the business rationale for making gender-smart investments supported by best-practice case examples.

This is true especially in the apparel business – a USD 2.4 trillion industry – where human rights violations and unsuitable working conditions seem just as common as bias cuts and luxury leisurewear. Together with CARE International, GAP Inc. (a clothing and accessories retailer) and GSK (a global healthcare company), CSR Asia has found examples of initiatives that are already including thousands of female workers in Asia, and created recommendations for business looking to invest in women and gender equality in garment supply chains. Strategies and initiatives that promote gender equality in the supply chain are growing in both size and sophistication, exemplified by the companies included below, who all plan to scale their work to increase their support for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Showing the monetary return on these investments is still difficult, but more data is becoming available and we can expect to see more and more concrete numbers on their return on investment in coming years.

  1. Invest in women’s agency and leadership to increase attendance and productivity
    Building the agency of women workers through improving their skills, knowledge and confidence is vital for empowerment and achieving gender equality in the supply chain.  Gap designed their P.A.C.E. (Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement) programme to do just that, providing foundational skills and support to workers that help with decision-making and problem-solving in the workplace and community. CARE has been a principle partner in implementing Gap’s P.A.C.E. programme for over a decade, implementing P.A.C.E. in factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. An ICRW evaluation showed that in Cambodia, women who participated in P.A.C.E. were three times more likely to advance in their careers than non-participants in the year following the training.
    P.A.C.E. has also strengthened Gap’s relationship with their suppliers through a sustainable and scalable programme model that benefits all participants and contributors.  A Harvard Business School analysis of P.A.C.E. in India demonstrated that after one year, the programme had a net return for the factory of 124% and this increased to 420% after 20 months due to improved attendance and productivity.  Gap is currently scaling P.A.C.E. to reach one million women and girls around the world by 2020.
  2. Deliver interventions that tackle barriers to gender equality
    Women face unique challenges and barriers in the supply chain that limit productivity and growth as well as prevent empowerment. A number of companies understand what these barriers are and have targeted their strategies and interventions to address them. Levis Strauss is one of them.
    The company has been working in collaboration with CARE in Cambodia to increase the knowledge and access to services of female garment workers in relation to sexual and reproductive health, maternal and newborn health, HIV/AIDS, nutrition & hygiene and financial literacy. Levi Strauss and CARE are now investing in tackling sexual harassment in the garment industry, which CARE’s research suggests affects nearly 1 in 3 women at a cost of over $80 million per year to the industry.  The project builds the capacity of factory managers to deliver multi-media behavior change training to workers, and implement a best practice anti-sexual harassment policy through developing management systems to prevent and respond to sexual harassment.  This includes the creation of a dedicated sexual harassment committee made up of workers and managers. CARE’s initial work on sexual harassment in the industry, which included the delivery of the in-factory training package, resulted in a 20% reduction in the perceived risk of sexual harassment among female workers.
    For many years GSK has worked with CARE to improve maternal and child health by training midwives and community health workers in Koh Kong province. Adolescents make up 35% of the population in Cambodia and GSK decided to support these young people as they grow into the adults, realising that will shape the future of the country. In 2015, after seeing a dramatic increase in young people migrating to cities, GSK has shifted its focus towards adolescent health, asking CARE to continue support the company in engaging with young women in Phnom Penh. GSK has built upon CARE’s expertise in working with women employed in Cambodia’s garment sector. The company has granted its 5-year support to CARE’s work to address the pervasive sexual, reproductive and maternal health and nutrition issues faced by the growing number of young factory workers in the capital. To find out more about GSK and CARE’s work in Cambodia, visit here or contact CARE’s Gender Equality Unit for more information here.
  3. Engage men and boys to ensure success
    Women must be at the centre of all initiatives to promote gender equality, but men and boys also have a vital role to play in achieving better outcomes for women and the businesses they work for. Engaging men and boys within and outside the factories is crucial, both for avoiding unintended negative consequences (new knowledge, skills and confidence can put women at increased risk if their husbands and employers feel threatened by it) and for starting to shift deeply embedded gender norms about women and work.
    Walmart’s Women in Factories Initiative has empowered over 30,000 garment workers in Bangladesh. CARE designed the global curriculum for Women in Factories, a publicly-available life skills training programme. Identifying a critical need to create an enabling environment for newly-trained garment workers to practice their skills, the NGO developed a training specifically for mid-level managers, and established community-based events to establish a supportive environment for female factory workers both within and beyond factory walls. An independent analysis of the Women in Factories Initiative, led by Tufts University, is forthcoming; but initial data suggests that training reduced tolerance for gender-based violence, humiliation in the workplace and depression, and improved the health of girls. From a business standpoint, management reported a reduction in both late days and turnover, and an increase in reaching production targets.
  4. Improve recognition of women in the supply chain through transparency and reporting
    Often the position and roles that women hold in the supply chain, and the challenges they face, remain hidden. In particular, women working in the informal parts of the supply chain, including homeworkers, are often invisible. Transparency and public reporting of the supply chain supports increased visibility and recognition of women’s role and the issues they face. Over 100 garment brands have now publicly released details of their supply chain – including Gap, C&A and M&S – indicating a major step forward in transparency in the industry.
    Public reporting can also extend to strategy targets and outcomes, enabling sharing and learning on best practice. Walmart has designed a five-year Global Women Economic Empowerment (WEE) Initiative, which includes a set of goals to help empower women around the world through sourcing, training and supporting diversity and inclusion. The Global WEE initiative includes a set of quantifiable targets that Walmart publicly reports against. More on Walmart’s Global WEE Initiative, can be found here.
  5. Join the conversation
    This year’s CSR Asia Summit will present a discussion on promoting gender equality and women’s rights in the supply chain. In partnership with CARE, we have invited brands, including GAP, GSK and Walmart to share how they are safeguarding the rights of women workers. More details can be found here. Also during the session, CARE will launch its regional dignified work strategy “Made by Women”, which will scale the impact of initiatives to promote gender equality and dignified working conditions for 8 million female garment workers in Asia by 2021.   For more information contact Clelia at [email protected].

Photo credits: Gap Inc.