Recognizing Women Workers in the Garment Industry
I grew up watching my mom sew. It was a hobby for herself as well as a job to support our family. I often look at her hands and wonder what pains she would have been dealt had she worked in a garment factory in Laos or Thailand - maybe long restless hours, low wages, and unsafe work conditions. I can only be thankful that her sewing career began in the United States, where the fight for change in the garment industry has already made its mark on American history. In 1909, the first National Women’s day took place in the United States, honoring the garment worker’s strike that took place a year before. That year, women protested the poor working conditions, low wages, and the sexual harassment they faced in the workforce. Two years after the strike, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, killing 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, in New York. Meanwhile for some countries such as China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia, the fight for women’s ethical employment is only beginning.
In 1909, the first National Women’s day took place in the United States, honoring the garment worker’s strike that took place a year before. That year, women protested the poor working conditions, low wages, and the sexual harassment they faced in the workforce.
The apparel sector and the garment industry are among the largest employers of women workers across the globe. According to Fashion Revolution, in China more than 70% of garment workers are women, in Bangladesh 85% are women, and in Cambodia and Vietnam about 90% of garment workers are women. The garment industry did not become a female-dominated workforce by mere coincidence. It is the cultural stereotypes, characterizing women as being passive and docile, that have been a driving factor in employers’ preference of hiring women to meet the demands of fast fashion. On top of that, women in developing countries are often constrained by domestic responsibilities, such as cleaning, cooking, and childcare, that time and opportunities may seem limited for improving work conditions, speaking against abuse and unsafe work environments, or asking for fair pay. Therefore, this creates a flexible environment that can easily be taken advantage of by managers and owners.
Because of these cultural stereotypes and social constraints, gender discrimination is very common in the garment industry, leading women to be constant subjects of sexual harassment and abuse, verbally and physically. In an article produced by Clean Clothes Campaign, Indonesian women employees reported, “[G]irls in the factory are harassed by male managers. They come on to the girls, call them into their offices, whisper into their ears, touch them, bribe them with money and threaten them with firing if they don’t have sex with them.” The challenges women struggle through are not limited to harassment and abuse. Other challenges in the garment industry workforce include the following: low pay, unpaid overtime, health and safety concerns (such as fire safety, exposure to harmful chemicals, and poor infrastructure), irregular work schedules, and lack of access to health care benefits and maternity leave.
According to Fashion Revolution, in China more than 70% of garment workers are women, in Bangladesh 85% are women, and in Cambodia and Vietnam about 90% of garment workers are women.
Women not only represent the majority of the garment industry, but they also represent the majority of low skilled, low wage workers. Due to unsupportive cultural norms and legal restrictions, such as limited freedom of movement (discussed further in this article) and unbalanced power dynamics (male-dominated management), women are often placed at a disadvantage. On a more positive note, the garment industry has the powerful potential to create formal employment opportunities for many women in developing countries, offering millions of women the chance to support themselves and their families. Research from Business for Social Responsibility has shown that sectors that employ a large number of women, such as the garment industry, create positive economic and social impact for their female employees. Garment work in particular has played a role by reducing the number of children women have, delaying marriage, increasing education, and increasing women’s decision making powers at home and in the community.
Research from Business for Social Responsibility has shown that sectors that employ a large number of women, such as the garment industry, create positive economic and social impact for their female employees.
Today, more women are joining unions and other labor movements, such as the National Garment Workers’ Federation, to campaign for women’s economic empowerment in the workforce. They’re fighting for work safety, freedom from violence, and the opportunity to be heard at work and in their communities. If you want to honor garment workers, ask retailers and brands: “Who made my clothes?” (part of a movement popularized by Fashion Revolution). Most likely, the clothes you’re wearing were sewn by the hands of a woman or a young girl. As consumers, we can find meaningful ways to influence industry transformation by recognizing where our clothes came from, how they made their way to us, and the lives behind them.
The first step to ethical consumerism is to grasp the power of our purchases. That is why we partner with Elegantees each year to create the Dressember Dress Collection -- handmade in Nepal by survivors of human trafficking. We're passionate about creating dignified employment. You can learn more here.
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About the Author
Gaochen Xiong recently graduated with her Master’s in Public and Nonprofit Administration. As a first generation born Hmong American, who is dedicated to paving the way for her children and future generations, she is excited to expand her knowledge and fight for justice through Dressember. She’s an avid reader, lover of all things arts and crafts, and enjoys experiencing new adventures and traveling with her family.