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Patriarchal Unions = Weaker Unions? Industrial Relations in the Asian Garment Industry



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Dr Alice Evans
Lecturer in Human Geography
University of Cambridge
Working Paper
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 workerscollective 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
Theoretical Framework
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’
. Caraway
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
Sri Lanka
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
operator, commented:
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
influential person.
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
variation here.
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.
This is
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
leadership: Vietnam.
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
support resistance.
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;
learning from
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.
Horizontal, pan-
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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The two minute video summary is available here:
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Berik and Van Der Meulen Rodgers, “Options for enforcing labour standards”.
... Multi-national garment corporations have long faced criticism over labour rights violations in their supply chains. In recent decades, endemic worker rights violations have been documented including wage theft and violations (Anner et al. 2013, Anner 2019, gender-based violence (Evans 2017, Selwyn et al. 2019, unsafe working conditions and dangerous levels of productivity (Merk 2011b, Mezzadri 2017, and infringements on freedom of association (Egels-Zandén and Merk 2014, Anner 2017. For over two decades, civil society, unions, workers, and policymakers have exerted sustained pressure on the multi-national corporations (MNCs) leading fashion supply chains to address these infringements improve labour standards (cf. ...
Full-text available
In the face of pressure from civil society, unions and consumers to improve labour standards for the workers producing their goods, companies at the helm of global garment supply chains have made commitments to pay living wages within their supply chains. Harnessing insights from the critical political economy literature on corporate social responsibility (CSR), we investigate the actions of garment companies to meet these commitments. We do so through analysis of original data from a survey of 20 leading garment companies, which we co-developed in 2018-2019, as well as publicly available information for garment companies and relevant multi-stakeholder initiatives. Based on this data, we argue there is very little evidence to suggest companies have made meaningful progress towards achieving commitments to pay living wages in their supply chains, challenging widespread assumptions about CSR's benefits to workers. We argue that in the face of mounting evidence of CSR ineffectiveness, including our own, there is a need for new political economy research into the benefits that companies derive from CSR commitments that deflect attention from their core business models and the uneven value distribution within global supply chains.
This article builds on critiques of the concept of social upgrading in global value chain (GVC) research, which problematize its coupling to lead firm strategies and economic upgrading by supplier firms, by reconceptualizing social upgrading through the lens of worker power. It argues that a better understanding of the causal processes of social upgrading can be obtained by integrating insights from labour geography, which situates worker agency at the intersection of a ‘vertical’ dimension of transnational relations and a ‘horizontal’ dimension of local relations, with conceptualizations of worker power from (global) labour studies, particularly the modes of structural and associational power. The authors call for a deeper theorization of the places in which GVCs ‘touch down’, arguing that worker power is decisively shaped by state–labour relations as well as the intersectionality of worker identities and interlinkages between spheres of production and reproduction. Case study analyses of the apparel sectors in Cambodia and Vietnam employ this reconceptualization, drawing on the authors’ own fieldwork. In both cases, worker power expressed in strike action was a key causal driver of social upgrading; and in both, the outcomes were conditioned by GVC dynamics as well as shifting state–labour relations and intersections of worker identities linked to gender, household and community relations.
While studies on local labor activism in Indonesia have blossomed in recent years, they rarely look at the role played by informal politics. Using a case study at the grassroots level in Makassar that focuses on industrial relations, we look to start filling this gap. We explore how labor activism in industrial situations, such as factory strikes and protests, has evolved under informal political circumstances. We find that these relations are dominant and highly significant for influencing labor activism at the local level. Moreover, we find the emergence of informal politics is mainly influenced by the fragmentation of labor unions, the personalism of labor leadership, and the pragmatism of union officials and workers. All of these tend to trigger informal political participation, such as brokerage, illegality, and kinship, that can overshadow local labor activism in factories. We conclude with a discussion of how the influence of informal politics has weakened labor activism at the local level and ways to distinguish the patterns, characteristics, and vulnerabilities of workers in industrial relations.
Resumen El derecho de libertad sindical es fundamental para institucionalizar el sindicalismo. La Constitución y el Código del Trabajo de Bangladesh lo reconocen, pero sus disposiciones han demostrado ser ineficaces para garantizar su ejercicio en la industria de la confección. A fin de corregir las deplorables condiciones laborales de la misma, se requiere un marco legislativo integral que promueva las aptitudes y recursos complementarios del Gobierno, de los propietarios de fábricas, de los sindicatos y de las marcas mundiales hacia un compromiso y una contribución permanentes a las dimensiones socioeconómicas y políticas de las relaciones laborales en la industria de la confección de Bangladesh.
Résumé La liberté syndicale est indispensable à l'institution syndicale. Au Bangladesh, les dispositions qui protègent déjà ce principe restent inopérantes dans la confection. Les autorités doivent pouvoir s'appuyer sur un cadre législatif capable de promouvoir la syndicalisation dans le secteur. Pour les auteurs, ce cadre devrait mobiliser les compétences et ressources complémentaires des différents acteurs en présence (État, industriels locaux, syndicats et marques internationales) et les amener à s'engager et agir sur le long terme pour améliorer la situation des relations professionnelles dans l'industrie de la confection au Bangladesh, à la fois sous l'angle socio‐économique et sous l'angle politique.
This article analyzes the nature of female activism within the context of the Vietnamese export‐oriented manufacturing industry. It highlights women's potential as change agents within the industrial fabric of Vietnamese society and identifies how gendered perceptions shaped the nature of industrial action in the country. The three examples of industrial action presented here indicate that although the activism undertaken by female rank‐and‐file workers in industrial zones was informal, it played a crucial role in the progressive changes to labor relations in Vietnam. Further, it shows how women's agency was shaped by their own gender perceptions, which in turn guided their industrial strategies and outcomes.
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The right to freedom of association is fundamental to the establishment of labour unionism as an institution. The Bangladesh government while requires enabling legal provisions for unionisation in its garments industry, as this paper explicates, its legal regulation for the right to freedom of association is in palsy to uphold the labour unionism. This paper argues for the necessity of legislation capable of drawing from the complementary skills and resources of the government, factory owners, labour unions, and global brands to secure a sustained commitment and contribution towards socio‐economic and political dimensions of labour relations in the Bangladesh RMG industry.
Based on intensive ethnographic fieldwork in Thailand, Textures of Struggle focuses on the experiences of Thai women who are employed at textile factories and examines how the all-encompassing nature of wage work speaks to issues of worker accommodation and resistance within various factory settings. Why are some women less tolerant of their working conditions than others? How is it that women who have similar levels of education, come from the same socioeconomic background, and enter the same occupation, nevertheless emerge with different experiences and reactions to their wage employment? Women in the Thai apparel industry, Piya Pangsapa finds, have very different experiences of labor "militancy" and "non-militancy." Through interviews with women at two kinds of factories-one linked to the global economy through local capital investment and another through transnational capital-Pangsapa examines issues of worker consciousness with a focus on the process by which women become activists. She explores the different degrees of control and coercion employed by factory managers and shows how women were able to overcome conditions of adversity by relying on the close personal ties they developed with each other. Textures of Struggle reveals what it is like for women to feel powerlessness and passivity in Thai sweatshops but also shows how they are equally able to resist and rebel.
This book investigates the political conditions and policies most likely to bring about progress toward inclusive development, drawing on in-depth analyses of four cases studies with distinct development trajectories (Mexico, Indonesia, Chile and South Korea). While exclusion and differential inclusion have long been features of development in the Global South, economic globalization has introduced new forms with which Global South countries must grapple. The book highlights the main policy drawbacks of most official approaches: neglect of the need to enhance the role and capacity of states, the focus on certain types of poverty alleviation strategies, and the tendency to disregard the need for productive employment generating activities and rural development. Neglect of issues of power and politics, however, is the most glaring inadequacy. Teichman argues that making progress toward inclusive development is primarily a political struggle. It requires a committed leadership with broadly based societal support - an inclusive development coalition - which includes usually small but politically important middle classes.
Contagion theory, one of the most appealing explanations of women’s representation, posits that when small parties start actively promoting women candidates, larger parties will be incentivised to follow suit and contagion will eventually spread throughout the party system. In examining the diffusion of gender quotas in Spain and Portugal, this article revisits contagion theory and adopts a more comprehensive approach. The results suggest that diffusion is better captured when one takes into account that political parties not only react to electoral competition but also adapt to policy innovation through learning and emulation, whose effects are often shaped by intra-party factors.
Drawing on approaches to class stressing the multiplicity of labour relations at work under capitalism and from feminist insights on oppression and social reproduction, this paper illustrates the interconnection between processes of class formation and patriarchal norms in globalised production circuits. The analysis emphasises the nexus between the commodification and exploitation of women's labour, and how it structures gendered-­‐ wage differentials, labour control, and the high 'disposability' of women's work. The analysis develops these arguments by exploring the case of the Indian garment industry and its gendered sweatshop regime. It illustrates how commodification and exploitation interplay in factory and home-­‐based realms, and discusses how an approach on class premised on social reproduction changes the social perimeters of what we understand as labour 'unfreedom' and labour struggles.
This article explores how women’s movements in China, India, and Indonesia have mobilised to influence processes of legal reform on violence against women and girls (VAWG). Legal change is a complex and iterative process, in which both state and non-state actors negotiate and bargain over the content of law in the ‘policy space’, bringing different interests and needs to bear. The three countries featured here differ in many ways, including population size, political system (including varying levels and degrees of democratisation and decentralisation, and regional and local autonomy), and diversity in the population, including ethnicities and religions. A comparative study such as this offers important potential for understanding policy change on VAWG, the role of women’s movements in this, and the obstacles to change.
Across Asia, the pursuit of national and global capital accumulation has relied on flexible, feminised work forces and patriarchal models of social reproduction. These gendered patterns of production and reproduction, while central to Asia’s neoliberal ‘miracle’ economies, have also generated powerful discourses that devalue women and their work. Drawing on case studies from across the region, this paper examines the links between these globalising dynamics and provocative local depictions of Asian women as active, desiring, and immoral. These ‘gendered morality tales’ reveal the complex cultural and ideological work that sustains neoliberal models of national economic development. At the same time, these moralising narratives offer insight into the localised negotiations through which marginalised and gendered citizens confront their subordination within the region’s hierarchically ordered political economies.