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

2. Women’s employment in global supply chains: positive and negative perspectives

This section discusses two different perspectives about the impact of women’s employment in global supply chains on economic and social development. Despite different perspectives, it is evident that wages and quality of employment are poorest in the lower levels of global supply chains and in firms that are on the periphery of production systems, for example, where there is no direct employment relationship, where production is subcontracted to local factories or to home workers. (Dejardin, 2008)

2.1 The positive impact of women’s access to employment on gender equality and economic and social development

The UN Sustainable Development Goals state that gender equality is crucial for economic and social development: “Providing women and girls with equal access to education, healthcare, decent work and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large.”

According to assessments of women’s economic empowerment there is strong evidence that gender equality can promote economic and social development. Household poverty is reduced when women have access to employment and education opportunities, and when women have access to resources, the education and skills of other household members also improve. (DFID/IDRC 2012; UN Women, 2015) Women’s higher labour force participation and employment rates have been associated with better educational achievements and improvements in women’s pay. (Barrientos, Kabeer & Hossain, 2004) This has increased women’s autonomy and bargaining position at home, given them greater influence over the distribution of household resources and enhanced their ability to act and defend their interests and those of their family and community. (Kabeer, 2000) In addition, the integration into global production through multinational enterprises (MNEs) and foreign investment has given access to new technologies and skills that are valuable for future economic growth and employment. (Dejardin, 2008) In particular, women’s employment conditions in MNEs are often better than in domestic enterprises. An OECD (2008) study indicates that MNEs promote higher pay in the countries in which they operate, although these positive effects are largely concentrated among workers that are directly employed by MNEs, compared to domestic companies that supply MNEs through a global supply chain.

The following examples show how women’s employment in global supply chains can have a positive impact on expanding economic and social opportunities for women, and in changing social norms about women’s economic participation:

  • Call centres in India, which employ large numbers of young women, have influenced social norms through expanded economic opportunities for women. An increase in the recruitment of young women to work in call centres over a three-year period in randomly chosen villages led to significant gains in schooling and nutritional levels of girls between the ages of 5 and 15 years. Young women’s call centre employment raised the value of girls in villages, changing traditional gender norms and reshaping family spending on both female and male children. (Jensen, 2010)
  • Improving girls’ access to education is important to their later economic empowerment. Girls’ school enrollment rose faster in Bangladeshi villages that were within commuting distance of garment factories, where the majority of workers are female. No such effect was observed among boys. (Heath and Mobarak, 2011)
  • In Guangdong province, where nearly 30 per cent of China’s exports are made, women far outnumber men on labour intensive production lines, such as those at the toy factory in the city of Shenzhen. Rural women are hired for their supposed docility, nimble fingers and attention to detail. But in recent years Guangdong’s workforce has changed. The supply of cheap unskilled labour has started to dry up. According to the Economist ‘factory bosses are now all but begging their female workers to remain’. The women who have migrated to the factory towns have become better educated and more aware of their rights. In labour intensive factories, stereotypes of female passivity are beginning to break down. (The Economist, 2013)
  • In Viet Nam, Jordan, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Haiti and Lesotho, the Better Work programmes have helped to create better conditions of employment for women. Business benefits include greater resilience, profitability, recruitment and retention. There are promising developments in the area of paid maternity leave, transport for women working at night, safety and health in the workplace and equal pay.

2.2 The not so positive impact...

Despite these promising stories, some commentators, development organizations and trade unions argue workers in global supply chains continue to face many problems of low pay and poor conditions of work, especially in ‘low-skill’ sectors such as agriculture and textiles. Some of the fastest growing developing countries show the least signs of progress on basic gender equality outcomes: “Formal regular waged work has the greatest transformative potential for women, but this potential has remained limited because of the lack of creation of decent jobs, and because of segmentation of labour markets.” (DFID/IDRC 2012, p.3)

In the context of global supply chains, MNEs rely on a largely flexible and mobile workforce. There is a heavy reliance on female, casual, migrant and contract labour in order to meet seasonal fluctuations in demand, or sudden changes in orders. (Dejardin, 2008; Staritz and Reis, 2013) Women are largely concentrated in lower segments of global supply chains, often beyond the reach of MNE corporate practices that provide legal and social protection for workers. In practice, where there is sub-contracting, jobs are insecure, wages are low, and working conditions are poor. (Barrientos, 2007) Work in global production systems also replicates and reinforces gender inequalities, where women are segregated into stereotypical “feminine occupations” and lower-skilled jobs, where a low value is associated with women’s work and skills.

Better Work argues that while a garment job for a woman is a positive development by virtue of its existence, it does not necessarily result in empowerment or even equality. Dan Rees, Director of ILO Better Work believes these (mainly female) jobs are important: “paid factory work can provide a better alternative to workers than other options available, such as unpaid family agriculture or domestic work.” Improved working conditions for women can have a domino effect, leading to greater investment by women in children’s health and education and household income. In Viet Nam, family remittances from workers in the factories where Better Work operate are increasing over time: 70 per cent of workers send money to family members, and women send home 24 per cent more than men.

For further information see:
Better Work:

Providing good conditions for women workers has an impact that stretches significantly beyond the factory floor. Ultimately, factory work will not be empowering for women workers unless the disadvantages they often face are tackled head on. Paid work can and should create opportunities for women to realize their rights, express their voice and develop their skills.