Empowering Women in Supply Chains – A Business Imperative

  • Blog UN Asia Consultation
  • Anisha Rajapakse

Over the last decade, many companies, industry coalitions, supplier groups, NGOs, unions, governments, and international coalitions have collaborated to create promising initiatives designed to improve working conditions, build skills, and promote the well-being of women workers in global supply chains. These efforts have built a collective understanding of what makes (and importantly,
what doesn’t) for a decent employment opportunity. While these advances should be recognized, much more needs to be done, and requires intentional actions and deliberate policies.

Apart from the moral imperative for protecting the rights of women workers, the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs), call on businesses to demonstrate their responsibility to go beyond ‘doing no harm’ by addressing issues through due diligence processes that safeguard the rights of women workers in their supply chains. These have been widely endorsed by governments and companies around the world must now be put to practice with the inclusion of women not just as victims of rights violations but as decision-makers and agents of change.

To realize the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and in particular SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls & SDG 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries, the private sector has an important role to play, particularly in sectors, such as apparel, that employ large numbers of women all over the world.

There is enough evidence to demonstrate that investing in girls and women is economically beneficial to companies and the broader economy. However, women around the world are too often subject to discrimination, sexual harassment and other forms of workplace work place violence. This coupled with the lack of professional advancement opportunities available to them and their exclusion from
key decision-making processes – makes the plight of these women quite challenging and poses a growing threat to sustainable global value chains and retention of a skilled labour force.

Companies that go beyond ‘business as usual’ policies by embedding a gender lens to their corporate sustainability strategies aimed at respecting the rights of women workers demonstrate higher worker retention, reduced absenteeism and increased productivity.

A growing number of countries have adopted legislation on sexual harassment at work. While laws may exist, factories and farms producing goods in global supply chains are often based in countries where laws are not consistently implemented or effectively enforced, and where there is low capacity for effective factory inspection. Lack of structured human resource policies, low levels of trade union representation and limited awareness about sexual harassment are also traits that can be found particularly in the lowest tiers of global supply chains. Tackling these problems requires appropriate law enforcement systems, effective social dialogue, better awareness among employers, practical workplace initiatives, and strategies to reach and give voice to those workers who are most affected.

Implementing effective grievance mechanisms and giving women the skills to advance above the factory floor is just the start. It is important to be cognizant that positive changes will not manifest overnight and requires the buy-in from all levels of the business. Empowerment initiatives need to be long term and sustained. Tokenistic and reactive interventions by businesses and business associations are often short-lived and are often about the external optics.

Companies need to go beyond such approaches and truly understand that meaningful efforts to empower women workers will have an escalating effect, improving the lives and prospects of so many other women. Amplifying their voices and increasing their access to career advancement opportunities will help protect their rights today and preserve those same rights for others. Businesses can and remain uniquely placed to contribute to the advancement of women workers and their empowerment around the world.