Briefing 2.1
Global supply chains: where do women work and under what conditions?

1. Introduction

The briefing looks at women’s employment in global supply chains, the main sectors where they work and their conditions of work. (For definitions of gender-based violence please refer to Module 3). 

Summary of key points about women’s and men’s work in global supply chains

  • Global supply chains provide women with opportunities for paid work - but many women do not have decent working conditions.
  • Women predominate in lower-skilled production jobs, whereas men predominate in higher-level jobs, managerial and supervisory positions.
  • Women’s jobs are often concentrated in the lowest paid and most insecure parts of global supply chains, often working as temporary or seasonal workers.
  • There is a heavy reliance on migrant, young, female labour – these are workers with the lowest bargaining power and little union representation.
  • The precarious nature of women’s work in global supply chains makes them especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence.

We now live in a fast-moving global world, linking large numbers of workers and consumers across developed and developing countries, which has important implications for the ways in which women and men organize their work and lives. This transformation has affected women and men in contradictory ways. It has opened up opportunities for women to enter new areas of paid employment, earn an income, gain independence and participate more actively in social life. But it has also created new challenges, as much of this employment is informal, with poor working conditions and a lack of labour rights, and has to be carried out in addition to household and family responsibilities. (Barrientos, Kabeer & Hossain, 2004, p. 1)

The ILO’s World Employment and Social Outlook 2015 found that more than one in five jobs today are linked to global supply chains. Global supply chain-related jobs represent 20.6 per cent of total employment, up from 16.4 per cent in 1995. Taiwan and China have the largest share of jobs associated with GSCs, with more than half of the workforce involved in global supply chain jobs, followed by the Republic of Korea and the European Union, where around one third of workers hold a job related to GSCs. (ILO, 2015)

Approximately 190 million women work in global supply chain-related jobs in the 40 countries for which estimates were available. In emerging economies, women’s share of supply chain-related employment is higher than their share in total employment. In 2013 women made up 41.9 per cent of total employment in global supply chains, although proportions are higher in developing countries. (ILO 2015)

Many of the women working in factories and farms producing goods for global production work in countries where labour laws and international labour standards are poorly implemented, and where there are significant gender inequalities. As IMF (2013) research has found, some countries miss out on up to 27 per cent growth per capita due to gender inequalities in the labour market. In addition, women workers in global supply chains have also been affected by widening gender inequalities as a result of the recent global economic crisis, which fell disproportionately on poor women and girls, exacerbating pre-existing inequalities and women’s over-representation in informal, vulnerable, and casual employment. (ILO 2011) According to UN Women (2015) the combination of the economic crisis and austerity measures further jeopardized women’s economic and social rights. Women in Asia, for example, have been more affected than men by job losses due to their concentration in the export-oriented manufacturing sector. (UN Women, 2015)