Grabbing a chocolate bar for a snack is something we give little thought to, but by the time that chocolate bar has reached our hands, it has been through an array of producers, suppliers and handlers across countries, cultures, political and geographical boundaries. The people and activities involved in the production of that chocolate bar – and many other consumer goods like it – are known collectively as global value chains – and they are highly gendered. At the retail end, women are drawn in as customers, buyers, and service providers. Indeed 70 per cent of retail purchases are undertaken by women. At the production end, the cocoa bean has been handled by farmers, including women as family labour.
Global sourcing has generated hundreds of millions of jobs in the global South producing everything from chocolate bars to Nike trainers, to the pineapple in your fruit salad. Many of these jobs are undertaken by women workers in developing countries. Campaign groups and the media regularly ‘expose’ exploitative conditions many workers face. But some argue that, despite the challenges, access to paid work can be empowering for women workers, especially in countries where they previously had limited access to labour markets.
For the last ten years, my research has sought to find out how global retail value chains are shaping gender patterns of work? What are the outcomes for workers, and who captures the gains? I discovered that the growth of global retailers and brands has been fuelled by the commercialisation of many activities previously undertaken unpaid by women within households. Women are now drawn into paid work in factories and farms to produce the ready-made garments, processed food and personal care products we buy. This is reconfiguring the gendered mix between commercial production and social reproduction in households. Retail dominance that has long prevailed in the global North is rapidly expanding in countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Gender discrimination is endemic. Women more than men are concentrated in lower paid and precarious work in every link of global value chains. Yet women’s skills, which have long been socially acquired in caring and household production, are critical to attaining quality, cost efficiencies and speed of delivery. Women’s skills are insufficiently recognised and their contribution is undervalued. The value they create and enhance is disproportionately captured by suppliers, agents, retailers and brands further along the chain.
However, women workers are not necessarily ‘passive victims’. Accessing paid work can provide economic independence and has opened up space for contestation. This can take many forms – individuals exiting jobs or sectors, collective organisation through trade unions, or collaborative participation through NGO advocacy and campaigns. Contestation and outcomes for workers can vary across firms, sectors and countries. Younger generations of workers are better informed through social media than their older peers.
Global retailers pressure suppliers to provide a rapid turnover of goods at ever more competitive prices. But they also want consistency and quality, and suppliers have to comply with a range of product, environmental and social standards. Many suppliers cope with these competing demands through a ‘low road’ strategy of labour exploitation and precarious work to lower costs and meet volatile orders. Some suppliers respond through a ‘high road’ strategy of innovation and raising productivity. They provide more secure jobs to attract and retain skilled workers.
Cocoa provides an illustration of a contested ‘low road’. In Ghana, as in other cocoa producing countries, we have seen multinational chocolate companies benefitting from depressed cocoa prices over decades. Workers in cocoa communities have limited access to health care, education, transport and energy. Younger generations are now deserting the cocoa sector, and chocolate companies are the target of civil society campaigns, including Oxfam’s ‘Behind the Brands’. Many chocolate companies, and some exporting governments, have responded through cocoa initiatives to promote economic and social sustainability. These include enhancing gender equality and supporting women in cocoa farming. Unless these begin to redress poverty and precarious work, younger farmers will continue to turn their back on the sector and NGOs will continue to campaign.
The garment industry highlights tensions between the ‘low’ and ‘high’ roads in retail value chains. There are approximately 60 million textile and garment workers globally, 60 to 70 per cent female. Many are trapped in poorly paid work in unsafe factories with few rights. Women often face sexual harassment by male supervisors and managers. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, and death of over 1,000 workers, provided a tragic reminder of the risks some garment workers face.
However, labour unrest by garment workers in many countries across Asia has forced some governments (including Bangladesh) to raise minimum wages. Retailers and brands are under pressure from trade union, NGO and media campaigns to improve labour standards. Some suppliers have innovated, provide better pay and conditions for their workers, and accept trade unions. Initiatives have been introduced by brands such as Nike, Gap and M&S, in collaboration with NGOs, to promote gender equality within factories. But significant changes are needed to redress low road pressures across the garment sector, including reversing the drive for cheap ‘fast fashion’.
Too many women are exploited in global value chains, but positive changes are happening. Women and civil society are pushing for change and we need to do more to support them. We need to challenge the commercial logics that drive gender discrimination and exploitation of workers and implement a much better system of global governance that involves companies, civil society and governments.
This was published in the July 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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