The Global #MeToo Movement: The Fight to End Gender Violence in the Garment Industry’s Supply Chains

By Anna Duke, University of Chicago Law School Class of 2020

As the #MeToo Movement continues to gain steam worldwide, a growing number of activists and NGOs have begun to call attention to the hidden workplace abuses faced by the world’s poorest women in Asia. In particular, women in apparel manufacturing — a female-dominated industry — report facing gender-based violence on a daily basis. New research into the working conditions of the garment supply chains of Walmart, H&M, and The Gap sheds light on the prevalence of verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and physical abuse that women workers in garment factories routinely face. Examples of physical abuse reported by Walmart factory workers include “slapping workers and throwing heavy bundles of papers and clothes at workers.” And while both men and women confront these kinds of abuses, women are disproportionately impacted due to a male-dominated management hierarchy in which women occupy the lowest positions of the factory and have the least amount of power. Harassment can also be sexual, targeting women in particularly vulnerable positions with no avenues for relief or protection. One former production-line manager in a supply factory for Walmart in Bangladesh was fired shortly after she resisted her manager’s sexual harassment. When she attempted to report the harassment to the police and to human resources, she was turned away.

Women in the garment industry are especially vulnerable to abuse due to their low social and economic status and the prevalence of gender discrimination more broadly, which undermines public avenues for relief. The lack of effective and reliable complaint and protection mechanisms often means that women suffer in silence. Although all three of these multinational firms have corporate social responsibility policies in place, such codes mean little in practice when companies implement weak monitoring mechanisms and shift responsibility for safeguarding worker’s rights to overseas employers. In fact, this lack of corporate accountability for human rights abuses in the supply chain is part of a larger set of factors that converge to create an environment in which gender-based violence is prevalent. These factors include the usage of short-term contracts, impossibly high production targets, excessive working hours, and low wages.

The United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) defines discrimination against women as “any distinction, exclusion, or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women… of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” Noting that violence against women is both a cause and a symptom of entrenched discrimination against women within the law, society, and culture of a country, CEDAW directs member states to introduce policies that will establish safe working conditions and ensure women’s access to justice systems and effective remedies for gender-based violence. However, until consumers hold companies accountable for workplace abuses around the world, female workers in the garment supply chain will continue to suffer in silence while gender-based violence continues without relief.

For example, although Mexico ratified CEDAW in 1981, female agricultural workers in Mexico continue to face gender-based violence on a daily basis, like the female garment workers in Asia. State institutions fail to provide access to justice or effective mechanisms for relief, and corporations who source produce from Mexican farms mirror the response of clothing brands by outsourcing responsibility for workers’ rights and working conditions to overseas employers. Recently, the tide began to turn when a coalition of activists and consumers successfully persuaded Wendy’s to change its farm source for tomatoes, citing the abuse of female farmworkers in Mexico. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworkers rights group instrumental in the campaign, has developed a consumer-based and worker-driven human rights program. CIW, relying on consumer engagement and mobilization, forced a real change in the supply chains of retail food companies by backing businesses that are part of the Fair Food Program (FFP). FFP is a human rights program which monitors and provides certification for companies that ensure fair wages and working conditions at the farms from which they source their produce. The FFP emerged from the Coalition of Immokalee Worker’s (CIW) campaign to improve the working conditions of workers in the Florida tomato industry. Under the FFP’s model of the worker-driven social responsibility paradigm, retail food companies must take initiative to improve the working conditions of farmers by paying a premium for tomatoes and by purchasing tomatoes only from growers who comply with the human rights-based Fair Food Code of Conduct. Compliance with the Code of Conduct requires zero tolerance of sexual harassment, violence, forced labor, or child labor. A similar campaign is needed to pressure Walmart, H&M, and The Gap into enforcing the protection of women in their supply chain from workplace abuses.

Although many of the Asian countries in which female garment workers face workplace abuses have also ratified CEDAW, these countries have so far failed to provide effective complaint and enforcement mechanisms. Consumers have a real power to demand better treatment of these women, and to insist on better corporate accountability for human rights violations in the supply chains. In addition, there are many organizations consumers can support that work to ensure fair wages and working conditions for workers in the supply chain of clothing brands. For example, Fair Trade Certified certifies and promotes clothing that are made by factory workers who make sustainable wages and work under safe working conditions. By working together, consumers can expand the #MeToo movement to include women who have the least power and are the most vulnerable.

Read the three reports detailing the pattern of discrimination and abuse of women in garment factories in Asia here: Walmart, H&M, and The Gap.