Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

5 ways to weave gender equality into Asia's garment supply chains

Gender wage inequality is a considerable challenge in Asia’s garment supply chains.

Gender wage inequality is a considerable challenge in Asia’s garment supply chains. Image: REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Rida Tahir
Barrister-at-law and an Advocate of the High Courts of Pakistan, Global Shaper, Karachi Hub
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Gender Inequality

  • The Asian garment sector is a key point of entry for women in the workplace.
  • Gender gaps persist in many areas of the industry, from pay to gender-based violence.
  • Pay legislation, social protections and anti-discrimination measures can all play a part in rectifying the imbalance.

Asia has been called the “garment factory of the world”. The continent employs the largest garment sector workers, constituting approximately 75% of the industry’s global workforce.

With an estimated 42 million women working in Asian garment supply chains, the industry is a key entry point for them to enter the formal workforce. While this has enabled the region’s women to become more economically empowered, significant gender gaps in areas such as employment rates, social protections, workplace rights, pay, and gender-based violence and discrimination are prevalent.

By implementing fairer policies and taking proactive measures, the Asian garment industry has the potential to elevate millions of female workers out of poverty while fostering inclusive economic growth.

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Here are five ways we can achieve equality in Asia's garment supply chains to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) on gender, particularly Goal 5 ("achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls") and Goal 8 ("decent work and economic growth" ):

1. Eliminate gender-related risks in the workplace

Employers are responsible for providing a workplace environment free from harassment, violence and discrimination. The establishment of grievance redressal mechanisms can encourage reporting of gender-related risks faced by women in the workplace, such as bullying, sexual abuse and harassment. A formal grievance resolution system can efficiently and confidentially resolve complaints while safeguarding employees and enhancing their confidence.

But, it is crucial that such a mechanism is transparent and unbiased and maintains confidentiality to ensure its effectiveness. Additionally, gender sensitization and capacity-building training can be conducted to ensure employees are aware of their legal rights and existing protection mechanisms. Such training can help workers recognize and challenge unfavourable prejudices and biases to build a workplace atmosphere that values diversity and respects all genders.

The garment industry is a major employer of women across Asia.
The garment industry is a major employer of women across Asia. Image: Ilostat

2. Compulsory social protections for women

Social protection programmes and policies can lower inequality and reduce the poverty gap by about 45%.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a disproportionate impact on women in the garment industry, which was worsened by their underrepresentation, particularly at the leadership level. This economic insecurity may be compounded by their unequal access to government and financial services.

Labour market policies and programmes must be designed to facilitate women’s employment in garment supply chains (on an equal basis with men) by promoting social insurance programmes to cushion the risks associated with unemployment linked with the unequal burden of childcare responsibilities, health, pregnancy, disability, work injury and old age. This can also help enterprises subject to unemployment following natural disasters or pandemics (such as COVID-19) by providing wage subsidies and other cash transfers and facilitating women’s return to employment.

In Pakistan, the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), a federal government social protection scheme, provides regular transfers in cash or in-kind as goods or services to poor and vulnerable people as a means to reduce food insecurity and malnutrition and access to education and health services.

3. Equal pay for work of equal value

Gender wage inequality is a considerable challenge in Asia’s garment supply chains. The male-female wage inequality in the sector is the highest in Pakistan (64.5%), followed by India (34.6%).

Equal pay for work of equal value has positive effects on the reputation and attractiveness of businesses, while increasing the salaries of undervalued workers can be more profitable; it boosts morale and productivity and attracts and retains talent in organizations. To ensure equal pay for work of equal value, businesses should establish a pay equity committee with at least 50% female representation. It should include members who have direct knowledge of the work to be evaluated and who can recognize and eliminate gender bias that could affect the process.

4. Empower women in a human-centred future of work

Businesses and governments should commit to measures that address challenges caused by an unprecedented transformational change in the world of work. The rise of artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and robotics could have an impact on jobs. Certain tasks may become obsolete, requiring workers to adapt their skills or transition into new roles due to technological advancement or the greening of economies.

Women stand to be disproportionately affected due to persistent gender inequality. Therefore, businesses and governments should focus on lifelong digital training for women, enabling them to skill, reskill, and upskill.

5. Ensure occupational safety and health (OSH)

Garment workers are exposed to many occupational hazards, including the risk of fire from unsafe electrical systems and obsolete boilers, exposure to flammable materials, exposure to hazardous chemicals, and contact with moving parts of machinery or tools without any protection. Women are more likely to experience injury from sewing machines. A safe working environment fosters productivity and economic growth; therefore, ensuring OSH in garment supply chains is important. Organizations should promote and support arrangements for OSH management systems in the workplace. This includes the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent injury and disability, occasional fire, and safety and infrastructure checks.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

By combining the five approaches outlined above, we can work towards achieving gender equality in Asia’s garment supply chains. This will increase female labour force participation in the region and empower women economically—but we must begin today.

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Related topics:
Equity, Diversity and InclusionSupply Chains and TransportationGeographies in Depth
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