This study documents women garment workers’ experiences of gender- based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in Asian production countries. It elaborates “economic harm” as a form of GBVH, underscoring how the business models of global apparel brands and their actions during the pandemic-induced recession exacerbated women workers’ vulnerability to violence both inside the factories and in their homes, families, and communities, leading to the feminisation of the COVID-19 crisis.
Economic Harm as GBVH
Gender-based violence and harassment (GBHV) is endemic to the garment industry. Asymmetrical power relations between apparel brands in the global North and suppliers in the global South are such that brands are able to dictate the terms of production, requiring ever higher production targets at ever lower rates, leading to high-pressure work environments in which management, who are typically men, employ tactics like bullying, abuse, and harassment to speed up the work process and discipline the predominantly female workers.
At the outset of the pandemic, global apparel brands unilaterally acted to protect their profits and rapidly cancelled manufacturing orders worth billions of dollars. As suppliers in production countries faced economic crisis in an already highly competitive environment, many global apparel brands demanded deep discounts, placing even more downward pressure on suppliers. Given these realities, escalation of GBVH in garment factories during the pandemic was, sadly, predictable and inevitable.
At the same time, brands rely on the secondary position of women in society to keep costs low and amass super-profits by paying poverty-level wages. Therefore, when brands, through their unilateral practices, unleashed widespread wage theft during the pandemic, women, who were already disproportionately at poverty level, found their survival – and that of their families – in extreme jeopardy.
“Economic harm” as a form of GBVH is recognised by the International Labour Organization in its Convention 190 on Violence and Harassment and Recommendation R206. While there is no definition of what constitutes “economic harm”, given the widespread wage theft that disproportionately impacted women workers and its cascading effects, it is an important area of exploration. Brands’ purchasing practices created the conditions for longstanding GBVH that pre-dated the pandemic, and their irresponsible actions in the context of COVID-19 led to a number of deeply gendered economic- based phenomena that inflicted immense harm on women workers. Thus, the report elaborates on economic harm as a form of GBVH and examines how it intersects with gendered power inequalities in the broader society to produce reverberations of GBVH throughout the spaces of home and community. The findings reveal that economic harm imposed on women workers is directly linked to the global brands’ business models, purchasing practices, and irresponsible actions during the pandemic.
Beyond the Factory Walls
Domestic and care work, disproportionately carried out by women, is essential for the renewal and reproduction of the most vital component of production processes – workers. In this way, the global economy is sustained, in large part, by the unpaid and underpaid labour of women. Women make immense social and economic contributions, yet their contributions remain unrecognised and undervalued, demonstrated by the lack of employer-based social protection and public services.
Women’s role as the main breadwinner in their families is also unrecognised, such that their waged labour has remained consistently underpaid, they are relegated to low-paid and insecure jobs and are more vulnerable to unemployment during times of contraction of the workforce. Global brands use this to their advantage to keep labour costs low and production flexible, which is why women make up the majority of workers engaged in garments manufacturing.
At the outset of the pandemic, brands abandoned workers in their supply chains and women were left to fend for themselves and their families through any means, which entailed reducing their consumption, taking on huge debt, and selling meagre assets to cover the costs of basic survival. Further, economic insecurity and forced intensification of work imposed by brands reinforced gender inequality and led to increased incidences of GBVH in the home and wider community, and the fabric that binds families buckled under the weight of extreme pressure.
All of this so that brands could minimise losses and increase their super- profits and so that value could be extracted from the bodies of women workers whose survival came at extreme costs. In this way, women workers subsidised global apparel brands during the pandemic-induced recession in 2020 not only through wage theft, but also through social reproduction of the workforce at great personal expense including their physical and mental wellbeing.
Read full report here.