Dr Alice Evans
Lecturer in Human Geography
University of Cambridge
Patriarchal Unions = Weaker Unions?
Industrial Relations in the Asian Garment Industry
This paper explores how gender ideologies shape industrial relations in the Asian garment industry.
Drawing on ethnographic research, it illustrates how widespread norm perceptions of acquiescent
women and assertive men reinforce patriarchal, authoritarian unions. Even if privately critical,
women may be reluctant to protest if they anticipate social disapproval. Such beliefs reinforce
patriarchal unions, curbing women workers’ collective analysis, engagement and activism. This
weakens the collective power of labour to push for better working conditions. Tackling norm
perceptions and building more inclusive unions may help strengthen the labour movement.
Trade unions have been a major driver of improved working conditions in the garment industry and
beyond. Yet they are heavily constrained, by widely-recognised economic and political obstacles.
This paper highlights a further impediment: gender ideologies. Widespread expectations of
acquiescent women and assertive men mean that unions are often patriarchal and authoritarian,
inattentive to their female members’ ideas and concerns, curbing their collective analysis.
Ethnographic research from across Asia suggests this is a regional trend, undermining the labour
movement. This analysis of industrial relations also makes a theoretical contribution. Concerned by
the vagueness of ‘gender norms’, it pushes for more attention to individuals’ norm perceptions (their
beliefs about what others think). By causally connecting individual psychologies and wider practices,
this concept helps us theorise the drivers of social change, and devise apt policy solutions.
Earlier research on globalisation, women and work includes: gendered impacts (employment, pay
gaps, and household relations); gendered control regimes in factories
; women’s disposability;
the need for ‘gendered codes of conduct’.
Such concerns might be addressed by tackling norm
perceptions and building more inclusive unions. This proposition diverges from that of Elson,
Pearson and Seguino. They argue that low wages in the garment industry are a cause (not
consequence) of its predominantly female workforce.
Because garment factories typically prioritise
low labour costs, they seek docile workers, assumed to accept poor working conditions (i.e. women).
If confronted by resistance, garment firms can relocate to wherever labour costs are cheaper. This
threat of capital flight curbs government support for wages increases.
This ‘race to the bottom’ is indeed harmful. It cannot be wholly abated through more inclusive,
stronger trade unions in low- and middle-income countries. But that does not render such strategies
futile. This paper will argue that more inclusive, stronger Asian trade unions are feasible and
important complements to much needed reforms to productivity, buyers’ practices and trade
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Gunseli Berik, Stephanie Barrientos, Sarah Childs, Sylvia Chant, David
Hudson, Emma Mawdsley, Chris Roche, Judith Teichman and Yana van der Meulen Rodgers for encouragement
and constructive criticism. Any deficits are clearly mine.
While ‘gender norms’ have always been central to research on women and economic globalisation,
our theorisation could be fine-tuned. We need to articulate how wider social practices influence
individual behaviour; distinguish between internalised ideologies and wider cultural expectations;
explain why norms change or persist over time; and accommodate evidence of heterogeneous
gender beliefs within a specific locale. This section argues that conventional understandings of
gender norms do not fulfil these requirements, so should be reformulated.
In India, Mezzadri suggests that ‘patriarchal norms mediate women’s differential entry into the
labouring experience, structure women’s shop-floor experience and also endlessly recreate an
imagery of gender subjugation’.
But what exactly are gender norms, and how do they influence
behaviour? This is rarely specified, perhaps taken as obvious. Surmising the wider literature on
gender norms, Pearse and Connell define them as ‘collective definitions of [men and women’s]
socially approved conduct’. Apparently, gender norms do not reside in individual consciousness but
are ‘more fundamentally properties of a community, society or organization’.
But what kind of
properties are these? Butler suggests norms are iterative, embodied, social performances.
Somewhat similarly, Salzinger refers to ‘discourses’. For her, ‘femininity matters in global production
… because it functions as a constitutive discourse which creates exploitable subjects’
likewise discusses ‘gendered discourses of work’.
But how do performances and discourses shape
other people’s behaviour? What is the causal connection here? In order to ascertain the drivers of
social change and continuity, we surely need to focus on people’s reasons for acting (their beliefs
and desires), not just their behavioural expressions.
First, we need to analytically distinguish between different kinds of gender beliefs: individuals’
internalised stereotypes and norm perceptions. A person’s internalised stereotypes are their
accepted assumptions about a gender. In Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand, male employers,
union leaders and NGO workers are said to ‘stereotype’ female garment workers as ‘docile’: thinking
them unlikely to talk back, demand higher wages or unionise.
As Caraway argues, ‘whether women
possess these traits is irrelevant; the crucial point is that employers believe that they do’.
Employers’ internalised gender stereotypes influence hiring and factory management.
Internalised gender stereotypes are developed through observation. If people only see men in
leadership, they may assume men are naturally better leaders, so prefer male leaders.
such beliefs are not static, but change through association and exposure to alternatives (as
chronicled in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Thailand).
However, given confirmation bias, people tend
to disregard information that contradicts their assumptions, especially if fleeting.
Some people privately question widespread gender stereotypes, but still conform due to their
norm perceptions: beliefs about other people’s stereotypes. They moderate their conduct due to
concerns about how they will be perceived and treated by others. ‘[L]ocal gender norms delineate
acceptable behaviours for women and men and police the moral worth of those who transgress’ –
suggests Mills, drawing on ethnographic research in Thailand.
This ‘policing’ is echoed in the
testimony of a 22 year old garment worker in West Java: “My parents wouldn’t like it if I joined in
Anticipation of social sanction curbs her union activism. Further, even if female garment
workers champion gender equality, they may doubt whether men will ever respect them as equals –
as Pangsapa found in Thailand.
In one factory, ‘[t]hese women were not unaware of their
exploitation, but they felt powerless to do anything about it and thus conformed to the complacent
woman assembler stereotype’.
Women’s compliance need not imply their uncritical
Workers may publicly adhere to expectations of docility, but privately joke about
management (as observed in some Chinese garment factories), slow down production (in Thailand),
or express frustration through spirit possession (as in Malaysia).
Disavowal of perceived local
norms is also revealed when female workers speculate that they might act differently in another
city, where union activism is more widely supported (as in Indonesia).
Here, acquiescence seems
due to their spatially specific norm perceptions, not their internalised ideologies. This analytical
distinction between internalised stereotypes and norm perceptions is well evidenced, but tends to
be obfuscated. Research on gender tends to equivocate between the two, referring to them
One similarity between norm perceptions and internalised stereotypes is that they are both
developed through personal experience. By observing and interacting with others, individuals learn
which behaviours are widely endorsed and enforced in their communities. They expect that they will
be respected according to the extent to which they conform to norm perceptions for their presumed
sex category. These concepts of ‘internalised stereotypes’ and ‘norm perceptions’ thus articulate
how wider practices/ discourses influence individual behaviour and reinforce path dependency.
Conventional understandings of gender norms cannot explain this link.
Another challenge for gender theory is that it must be able to accommodate evidence of
heterogeneous gender beliefs within a specific locale. For instance, within urban West Java, there is
mixed acceptance of women’s union activism: some clusters are very supportive, others not so.
Within any given city, there is likely to be a range of sub-cultures and generational differences. Such
diversity cannot be surmised with a singular, aggregate gender norm. By contrast, the concept ‘norm
perceptions’ is entirely compatible with local heterogeneity because refers to plural individuals’
subjectivities (as shaped by their idiosyncratic interactions and observations).
The remainder of this paper explores how internalised ideologies and norm perceptions shape
industrial relations in the Asian garment industry.
As recognised by the International Labour Organisation, ‘[i]n the garment sector, [wage]
adjustments are usually adopted only after mass protests and strikes that disrupt the industry’.
Vietnam, for example, wildcat strikes comprising 200,000 workers enabled a 30% increase in the
minimum wage in 2006 and mandated inflation-adjusted nationwide annual increases thereafter.
Likewise in Indonesia, minimum wages rose by 47% in Jakarta and 57% in Subang following labour
mobilisation. Parallel dynamics hold for Bangladesh, Cambodia and China.
Unionisation can also improve compliance with legislation. In Indonesia, union mobilisation
strengthens the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s capacity to enforce mandated minimum
Similarly in Cambodia, there is a statistically significant association between union presence
in factories and compliance with minimum wages, hours and leave standards. Notably, union
presence only improves compliance on issues prioritised by union leadership. In Cambodia this
includes pecuniary matters but not health and safety.
Successful activism also shifts norm perceptions. Instead of passively accepting their fate, workers
learn that collectively they can influence wage negotiations. Recognising that others will support
their activism, they gain confidence in the possibility of social change. This galvanises further
mobilisation – as observed in Cambodia, China, Korea and Vietnam.
Past experience of striking
shifts norm perceptions about the acceptability of women’s activism, encouraging further
mobilisation. This fosters a positive feedback loop – as illustrated by Silvey’s comparative analysis of
two cities in West Java.
Similarly, in his history of class formation in England, E. P. Thomson
suggests that through organising, workers developed ideas of solidarity and collective resistance.
Behavioural change thus precedes ideational change.
While unions have driven major improvements, they are also heavily constrained by widely-
recognised economic and political factors. These include the prevalence of short-term, insecure
contracts; intimidation by factories; fear of job loss; consequently low union density; as well as the
fragmentation and multiplicity of politically-divided unions, enabling management to ‘divide and
Workers’ power is further constrained by ease of firm relocation. Concern for capital flight
curbs government responsiveness to (and tolerance of) union activism.
These labour abuses are
incentivised by buyers’ short-term contracts, low prices and late penalties. Buyers may be reluctant
to reform individually, given price competition within the garment industry.
Without denying the primacy of these obstacles, the next section draws on ethnographic research
from across Asia to highlight a further, widespread impediment to industrial relations: gender
Gender Ideologies and Inequalities
Among the many impediments to union activism in the garment industry are gender ideologies.
Factory supervisors, owners, monitors, regulators and parliamentarians are mostly male, interacting
with predominantly female garment workers (see Table 1).
Table 1: Percentage of Female workers in the Asian Garment Industry
Occupations in the garment industry are horizontally and vertically gender segregated: poorly paid
female sewers encircled by male mechanics, electricians, guards, supervisors and managers.
Bangalore, ‘[w]omen cut, sew and clean what men design; women operate machines that men
service, women work on the factory floor whilst men stand guard, women toil while men manage
and so forth’.
Likewise in Vietnam, the garment workforce is predominantly female but two thirds
of supervisors are male. Men are also more likely to be promoted and receive training, even though
they tend to be at the same factory for less time.
In northern India and Pakistan, norm perceptions
deter women’s mobility and employment in the public sphere. They thus primarily work as sub-
contracted home-based workers, earning far less (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Gender pay gaps in garments, textiles and footwear
Despite a predominantly female workforce (except in northern India and Pakistan), the vast
majority of garment union leaders are male.
Further, they are widely characterised as patriarchal
and authoritarian. In Bangladesh, Dannecker observed that, ‘[t]ypically, the representatives of the
unions – all men – sat behind a table, while the female workers who attended the meetings sat in
front of them on the floor. Often the women were very shy, hiding their faces while listening to the
representatives, who lectured them about labour law. It was relatively normal for people attending
such meetings not to dare to ask questions’.
Kabeer likewise suggests that ‘not only are most male
trade unionists largely indifferent to [women’s] needs and priorities as workers, but they also tend
to reproduce the norms and behaviour that treat women as a subordinate category and marginalise
their needs and priorities as women.
Parallels are found in Cambodia
and Indonesia, where 11%
of surveyed workplaces terminated women employees upon pregnancy, but no union raised this
Cambodian garment workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch ‘said they had no access
to independent complaint mechanisms in factories where they could safely complain and seek
redress for workplace sexual harassment’.
In the Philippines, male-dominated union leadership
rarely prioritises or secures women-related proposals in collective bargaining agreements –
especially not if financially costly (as shown in Table 2).
Table 2: Gender sensitive provisions in collective-bargaining agreements, The Philippines
In The Philippines, collective-bargaining agreements tend to be more gender-sensitive if negotiated
by female representatives – according to interviewed male and female unionists from garment,
textile and leather industries.
This suggests that the disregard of gender in other agreements
reflects the concerns of union leaders, but not their members. Female activists in the Cambodian
garment industry similarly suggest that sexual harassment and other gender-based concerns would
be more likely addressed if there were more women in union leadership at factory and federation
Experience of neglect influences norm perceptions. If workers learn that pertinent gender-specific
concerns are unheard, they may not raise them to union leaders (as observed in West Bengal).
Indonesia, 85% of garment workers expressed concerns about sexual harassment and physical abuse
to the ILO. But only 30% raised this with their union representatives.
This selective silence suggests
that workers had not passively, fatalistically accepted abuse. The problem was not their ‘false
consciousness’/ internalised ideologies, but rather their norm perceptions of union representatives.
If women workers do not expect to be heard by unions, they may disengage. In Bangladesh (and
also Cambodia), ‘[t]he leaders of the unions adopted a very paternalistic mode of interaction with
women workers…. [W]omen obeyed gender norms by behaving shyly and obediently during the
meetings, but made their point of view quite clear by not participating further… Hazara, a senior
What can I say? One of my colleagues motivated me to go to this meeting because they
might help us. But I do not know what this organisation can do for us, the man who talked
was not even a garment worker. I did not understand what he was talking about. He asked
what problems we have, what can I say, he will not understand. I felt very uneasy with all
these people around’.
This regional trend of patriarchal, authoritarian unionism may explain why women are said to be less
likely to participate in union activities in Indonesia.
In a survey of Cambodian union members,
women’s limited participation in union activities was the most widely identified internal problem.
Female garment workers’ disinterest also concerns union leaders in Thailand.
While female garment workers may prefer more inclusive union leadership, they may not put
themselves forward as leaders if they anticipate social sanction. Assertively negotiating with
employers, addressing large rallies and leading demonstrations are regarded as masculine in
Bangladesh, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand.
Transgressive women may be chastised, with
questions raised about their sexual respectability. Fear of recrimination likely deters other women
from pursuing leadership roles. Working-class women may also doubt their capacity to influence or
challenge men. “Don’t hit a stone with an egg” cautions one Cambodian proverb. One Malaysian
garment worker described patriarchy as ‘normal’: what they have observed, become accustomed to,
and now expect.
Similar fatalism has been observed in Bangladesh, Korea, Indonesia and
Patriarchal unions reflect wider politics. South East Asian women tend to be less confident in their
ability to change the political system; less likely to engage collectively; and less likely to contact an
Such ideologies are reinforced by male-dominance of leadership, which seems
self-perpetuating. With little exposure to women demonstrating their equal competence in socially
valued domains, many assume that men are more suited to leadership. Table 3 depicts intra-regional
Table 3: ‘Men make better leaders’: reported agreement
These gender ideologies appear to wane through exposure to women leaders. For example, in
Indonesian districts with female incumbents, political parties are more likely to nominate women.
They realise that voters will support women candidates – a shift in norm perceptions. Female
incumbency also appears to increase voters’ proclivity to elect women representatives.
consistent with a growing body of evidence. Gender quotas (and other forms of exposure to women
leaders) appear to – slowly and incrementally – weaken gender ideologies. This motivates others to
follow suit and enables a positive feedback loop.
Inclusive leadership also appears to increase women’s union engagement. Research in Bangladesh,
India and Vietnam suggests that women are more likely to voice their concerns and become
members of unions with female leaders.
Relatedly, Vietnamese women who had participated in
leadership training said they had been ‘inspired’ by seeing women leaders, and felt more
comfortable speaking out in the presence of other women.
In the Philippines, collective bargaining
agreements negotiated by women are more often gender sensitive. If female workers perceive
unions as responsive they are more likely to actively engage, suggest Serrano and Corteza, drawing
on quantitative and qualitative research.
Further, of Malaysia’s three major garment-producing
states, the state that has pro-actively increased female leadership (to 80% of the executive council)
has the highest level of female union membership.
(Causation may run in either/ both directions
here). Also, it may be a coincidence, since there are other factors at play, but strikes are particularly
common in the South East Asian country with the highest support for women’s employment and
Diversifying leadership could aid public communications. For example, in January 2014 there was a
violent crackdown on striking garment workers in Cambodia. The Government banned public
gatherings of more than ten people. Yet the Workers’ Information Center (WIC) still wished to hold
their Annual Workers’ Forum. No venue would rent them space though, due to concerns about
Government reprisals. Instead WIC held the event in their office, under the guise of an apolitical
‘fashion show’. 300 workers attended – a large number given the threatening political situation.
They watched beautifully coiffed, fellow garment workers confidently strut down a catwalk, wearing
clothes made in Cambodia. This glamourous spectacle was juxtaposed and interspersed with
dramatic recreations of recent killings, as well as posters detailing industry profits and poor working
This creative, politically savvy event appealed to women workers, strengthening
solidarity in extremely difficult times. It was designed by women.
If more unions provided safe, welcoming spaces then women workers could reflect on their shared
experiences; come to question their gender ideologies; learn about labour laws; discover another
world, beyond the factory gates; build support networks; iteratively develop solidarity; and devise
collective strategies for change (as Pangsapa observes of one workers’ centre in Thailand).
sharing information, these Thai workers learned about better conditions elsewhere, and realised a
different situation was possible. They became less fatalistic, more critical of their own situation, and
‘gained a sense of agency’.
Research in Cambodia similarly underscores women’s appreciation of
association and shared learning; no longer ‘frogs in a well’.
Public interactions may be especially
important for home-based, sub-contracted workers – who are typically less exposed to alternatives,
less inclined to question their gender ideologies.
As Mohammad wrote of British Pakistani women,
“The public realm is where the legitimacy of collective social norms and values is negotiated through
visibility and presence”.
In sum, gender divisions of labour and leadership within the garment industry appear to
perpetuate patriarchal practices, curbing women’s union activism and engagement. Though
dissatisfied by male leaders, many women appear reluctant to put themselves forward, due to
concerns about how they will be perceived by others. Patriarchal unions, in conjunction with
gendered discourses and divisions of labour in factories, sustain gender ideologies. These beliefs,
together with economic and political obstacles, undermine the collective strength of labour.
Importantly, this phenomenon is not unique to the Asian garment industry; it is a shared, global
Though widespread, the influence of gender ideologies on industrial relations is seldom
acknowledged by mainstream development discourse. For instance, the World Bank’s gender
analysis of the ILO’s Better Work Programme narrowly focuses on the household-level effects:
detailing how communication training and women’s employment has democratised and household
financial budgeting and care work. The report mentions managers’ perspectives, but not their
attitudes to female workers. The ILO’s report, “Women, Work & Development: Evidence from Better
Work” also omits unions and hierarchies therein.
Policy recommendations for Asian trade unions
similarly tend to neglect the influence of gender inequalities – even when they find that women’s
limited union participation is the most widely identified internal problem.
Oxfam’s recent report in
Myanmar mentions that women are under-represented in leadership, but does not address this in
their policy recommendations.
Without more inclusive leadership, gender codes of conduct
and proposals for better maternity
are unlikely to be enforced. The widespread disregard of social reproduction and
paucity of maternity protection reflect the ideologies and interests of existing leadership. This needs
to be tackled in order to gain traction for gender-sensitive policies.
Tackling Gender Ideologies
Building on the above theorisation of social change and continuity, this section reviews ongoing
interventions to tackle gender inequalities in the garment industry, and suggests improvements.
Gender-focused interventions have typically focused on women workers’ deficits: their limited
knowledge of their rights, i.e. their internalised ideologies. For instance, ILO (2012) attributes the
paucity of women’s leaders to women’s lack of experience and confidence.
Similarly, to curb the
trafficking of Bangladeshi, Indian and Nepalese women into the garment industries of India, Jordan
and Lebanon, DfID-ILO seek ‘to strengthen both migrants and aspiring migrants’ understanding of
their own rights in the context of patriarchy, mobility and work’.
If participatory, gender sensitisation can be effective: creating a safe space for participants to
analyse common grievances, share their experiences, see others disavow gender inequalities and
thereby revise their norm perceptions (as per the earlier paragraph on ‘association’). However,
participatory modalities seem uncommon.
Moreover, gender project reports usually only detail
numbers of workers trained in workshops: i.e. processes, not outcomes.
In Malaysia, ‘[d]espite
sustained efforts by both NGOs to transform women’s consciousness, there appeared to be great
reticence on the part of the women themselves to believe that they can challenge the very system…
to them it is part of their lives to be exploited, they simply accept it’.
Telling women workers that
they have rights (in abstract) may not necessarily shift their norm perceptions – that others will
Instead of ‘raising awareness’, it may be more effective to: tackle occupational segregation;
support ongoing campaigns for inclusive leadership; and facilitate horizontal networking.
(i) Horizontal and vertical occupational desegregation in factories.
People develop their gender beliefs through observation of the world around them. For garment
workers this includes horizontal and vertical sex segregation in the garment industry. Segregation
reflects and reinforces widespread assumptions of difference (as Caraway observes in Indonesia).
But such ideologies are changeable: through prolonged exposure to women demonstrating their
equal competence in socially valued, ‘masculine’ roles.
Experimental research in Bangladesh
suggests that gender beliefs change only after four months of working with trained female
Exposure to flexibility in gender divisions of labour could be amplified through active labour market
interventions: scholarships, in-service training, scholarships or gender quotas.
For example, Agence
Française de Développement has lent the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC)
$3.26 million to establish a Cambodia Garment Training Institute.
They might have stipulated
gender quotas for training programmes for mechanics and mangers.
Exposure to flexibility in gender divisions of labour could also be amplified by TV shows. National
soap operas – like ‘At the Factory Gates’ (sponsored by Better Factories Cambodia, to provide
edutainment on workers’ rights) – might feature women mechanics or union representatives in
garment factories. Shows might also showcase men sharing unpaid care work: cooking, cleaning and
caring for children.
Such films are already being made in Cambodia, by the Women’s Media Center.
(ii) More inclusive leadership – of unions and dispute resolution committees
Many South East Asian female unionists have long campaigned for more inclusive leadership. The
Vietnam General Confederation of Labour has resolved to increase the percentage of women in
union leadership to at least 30 percent. In 2016, FSPMI (a metalworkers’ union in Indonesia) adopted
a 40% quota for women in leadership
(as have some Ghanaian and South African trade unions).
Some unions permit branch and regional structures to send additional female delegates (with full
voting rights) to annual meetings.
Efforts might be made to limit male dominance of dispute resolution mechanisms. ‘Performance
Improvement Consultative Committees’ – comprising worker and management representatives – in
Vietnamese factories could include more women workers, for instance.
This could be lobbied for
through reference to Article 54 of the Labor Code, which mandates employers to consult female
Further, in factories where women comprise 40% of labourers, the management
committee must include a woman (as per the 1967 Law).
Support for more inclusive mechanisms might be galvanised by highlighting increased profitability
and reduced strikes in factories where workers are comfortable raising concerns;
pilots; and showcasing benefits in neighbouring countries (as proved effective in Vietnam).
to legitimise their engagement in this masculine domain, women workers have often framed it as
consistent with accepted identities: referencing gendered kinship metaphors of responsibility and
sacrifice in Thailand; feminist interpretations of the Quran in Indonesia; and maternal responsibilities
in Mexico and Indonesia.
Greater female union membership and leadership has also been prioritised at the global level – by
the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation; the International Confederation
of Free Trade Unions; and IndustiALL (the Women’s Committee is pushing for a gender quota).
Rather than more gender sensitisation, these federations (and other partners) could incentivise
reform by making gender quotas a condition for their financial and legal support to factory-level
unions. In Cambodia, the Center for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL) has been
lobbying the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU) to change their by-laws: mandating all
affiliated plant-level garment unions to have a female president and female general secretary. After
two, slow years of discussions, CENTRAL offered financial incentives. It would prioritise legal aid (for
illegally dismissed or criminalised workers) to unions with gender quotas. While CATU is yet to
change its by-laws, it has made de facto reforms. In recent elections in CATU-affiliated unions,
women won 12 out of the 14 leadership positions. Other funders could adopt similar tactics:
incentivising gender quotas, rather than just raising awareness.
(iii) Horizontal networking, peer learning and coalition-building
Political analyses of inclusive development increasingly emphasise reformist coalitions.
there is less evidence about how these are best supported. At present, donor-funded NGOs tend to
be fractured: focusing on their own projects (providing services or trainings for poor beneficiaries),
rather than collectively pushing for change.
I suggest that more horizontal networking and peer
learning between Asian factories, unions and countries could build coalitions by enabling unions to
learn from successful peers. Seeing victories elsewhere could also increase workers’ confidence in
the possibility of social change and thereby galvanise further mobilisation. It may also lead sceptical
colleagues to regard it as normal. Research from social psychology indicates the particular
importance of increasing exposure to groups perceived as peers – as people are more likely to
conform to the norms of a group with which they identify.
Demonstration effects also seem to
operate at the regional level: when countries adopt gender policies and treaties, or increase female
representation, their neighbours are more likely to follow suit (controlling for other variables).
Traction for gender quotas within the garment industry might be accrued by learning from
Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, South Korea and Timor-Leste, which
have all introduced various forms of gender quotas at sub-national or national levels – after
prolonged transnational feminist activism.
Further examples include Malaysia (which introduced a
gender quota in the public sector and for corporate boards); and the Bangladesh Independent
Garment Workers’ Union (where women hold at least nine out of fifteen leadership positions).
IndustriALL’s recent Asia-Pacific women’s conference called for a gender quota.
Asian networking could enable workers to learn from others’ successful tactics and strategies.
Peer learning, support and solidarity may also be cultivated through collective, creative
endeavours: poems and short stories for pro-labour newspapers; street dramas; as well as songs and
dances (performed at both small group meetings and large events, like the Asian Women Workers’
Festival in Bangkok in 2002). Solidarity and collective discussions can also be facilitated through
weekly saving meetings – as observed in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India.
It might also prove effective to strengthen coalitions and synergies between middle-class feminist
activists and trade unionists (as proved effective in tackling sexual harassment in Malaysia).
Shared concerns might include equal pay, parental leave and safety in cities. However, there may be
class-based differences in priorities.
Across the Asian garment industry, gender divisions of labour and leadership appear to reinforce
widely-shared assumptions that men are more competent in socially valued domains and thus more
suited to leadership. With minimal support for women leaders, unions remain patriarchal. This
appears to deter women’s union engagement and thereby weaken the labour movement. The
foregoing analysis complements earlier feminist research by pinpointing the underlying drivers of
gender inequalities. Previous studies called attention to gender pay gaps, gendered control regimes,
the construction of women as ‘disposable’, and need for gendered codes of conduct. These would
likely be addressed by tackling norm perceptions and strengthening inclusive leadership.
Theoretically, it pushes for more attention to individuals’ norm perceptions. This contrasts with the
more conventional reference to ‘gender norms’ (a singular feature of a given society). ‘Norm
perceptions’ is preferable as it: clearly articulates how wider practices influence individual
psychologies and behaviour; explains why norms change or persist over time; accommodates
evidence of heterogeneity; and provides policy guidance. Individuals’ norm perceptions reflect their
observations and experiences. They can change through exposure to multiple instances of
disconfirming evidence. Multiplicity is necessary to overcome confirmation bias: occasional counter-
examples will be disregarded. Norm perceptions could be shifted by routinising and institutionalising
exposure to flexibility in gender divisions of labour – such as through gender quotas for female
mechanics, managers and union leaders. Participatory, collective discussions at weekly savings
groups could then enable workers to reflect on their observations. Feminist campaigns are already
ongoing in Asia: they could be amplified and heard more widely, to increase confidence in the
possibility of social change.
However, more inclusive union leadership is highly unlikely to be immediately achievable or
independently transformative. Ideological change is slow, incremental and inevitably conflictual. The
gender ideologies that influence industrial relations will not change within a project cycle. Further,
any such reforms in low and middle-income countries would neglect a central cause of low wages in
the global garment industry: fears of capital flight. Stronger, more inclusive unions are only
suggested as a complement to much needed international reforms.
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a basket will rattle”.
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Amengual and Chirot, “Reinforcing the state”.
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Though the latter does not apply in Vietnam or China, where one union confederation is
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30; Nuon and Serrano, “Building unions in Cambodia”; Seguino, “Accounting for Gender”.
Alois, “Better Work”: 187
Van Klaveren, “Wages in Context”.
ILO, “Action-oriented research”; Kumar “Interwoven threads”: 797.
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Fontana and Silberman, “Analysing Better Work Data”: 11-16
ILO “Wages and productivity”
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Kabeer, “Globalization, labor standards”: 22-23
Nuon and Serrano, “Building unions in Cambodia”
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Serrano and Certeza, “Gender, Unions and Collective Bargaining”: 85-86
Human Rights Watch, “Work Fast or Get Out”, 91.
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Nuon and Serrano, “Building unions in Cambodia”: 108.
Mills, “From Nimble Fingers to Raised Fists: 126
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Ong, Spirits of Resistance, 192.
Ford, “Indonesia”: 24; Miles, “The Social Relations Approach”: 13-14; Park, “The Korean Women’s
Trade Union”: 250; Pangsapa, Textures of Struggle.
Chang and Welsh, “Are East Asian Women Democratic Citizens?”.
Shair-Rosenfield, “The alternative incumbency effect”.
Evans, “For the elections, we want women!”; World Bank, World Development Report 2012.
Dannecker, “Collective action”; Hill, “India”; Kabeer, “Globalization, labor standards,”; Trần, Ties
that Bind: 206.
UNDP, “Women’s Leadership in Viet Nam”: 19, 32.
Serrano and Certeza “Gender, Unions and Collective Bargaining”: 91
Crinis, “Malaysia”: 59; see also Dannecker, “Collective action”; Hill, “India”; Kabeer, “Globalization,
labor standards, and women’s rights”; Trần, Ties that Bind: 206.
The two minute video summary is available here:
Pangsapa, Textures of Struggle: 85, 114-119.
Pangsapa, Textures of Struggle: 98, 117-118
Hiwasa “Changing gendered boundaries”: 140; Brickell “The Whole World is Watching”: 1264.
Evans, “The Decline of the Male Breadwinner”: 1147.
Mohammad, “Making gender ma(r)king place”: 1804.
Kirton, “Progress Towards Gender Democracy”; Ledwith and Munakamwe, “Gender, union
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Nuon and Serrano, “Building unions in Cambodia”.
Oxfam, “Made in Myanmar”.
Barrientos et al, “A Gendered Value Chain Approach”; Pearson “Beyond women workers”;
Ruwanpura, “Women workers”
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ILO, “Action-oriented research”: 59
UKaid and ILO, “Brief on Work in Freedom Programme in India”:1.
Evans, “Gender Sensitisation”; UNDP, “Women’s Leadership in Viet Nam”: 16-17, 44-47.
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Miles, “The Social Relations Approach”: 13-14; Park, “The Korean Women’s Trade Union”: 250;
Ford, “Indonesia”: 24.
Caraway, “The Political Economy of Feminization”: 415.
Evans, ““For the Elections We Want Women!”; 2016b; Shair-Rosenfield, “The alternative
incumbency effect”; World Bank, World Development Report 2012.
Macchiavello et al, “Challenges of Change”
Macchiavello et al, “Challenges of Change”
AFD, “Creation of a training institute”.
Evans, “The Decline of the Male Breadwinner”
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Reerink, “Report on a Survey of Women”: 48-55;
Britwum and Ledwith, Visibility and voice.
Fontana and Silberman, “Analysing Better Work Data”: 25
Republic of Vietnam, “Law No. 10/2012/QH13”. http://vietnamlegal.com.vn/Legal-
Chiricosta, “Following the trail”: 133
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ILO, “Better Work Vietnam”.
Mills, “From Nimble Fingers to Raised Fists”: 130; Robinson, Gender, Islam and Democracy;
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Broadbent and Ford, “Women and labour organizing in Asia” : 3; IndustriALL, “IndustriALL
Cagna and Rao, “Feminist Mobilisation”; Hickey et al, The Politics of Inclusive Development;
Teichman, The Politics of Inclusive Development.
As also observed by Jad, “The NGO-isation of Arab Women’s Movements
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Simón and Verge, “Gender Quotas”; Wotipka and Tsutsui, “Global Human Rights”.
Costa et al, “Following the trail of the fairy-bird”; IDEA, “Quota Project”; Reerink, “Report on a
Survey of Women”
Rock, “The rise of Bangladesh Independent Garment-Workers Union”: 37).
IndustriALL, ““Asia-Pacific conference highlights struggles”.
Kabeer and Huq, “The Power of Relationships”; Gunawardana, “Struggle, Perseverence, and
Organization in Sri Lanka’s Export Processing Zones”; Jenkins “Organising “Spaces of Hope””, 638.
Ng and Chee, “Women in Malaysia”.
Robinson, Gender, Islam and Democracy: 113; Cagna and Rao, “Feminist Mobilisation”.
Berik and Van Der Meulen Rodgers, “Options for enforcing labour standards”.