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PR, Profit and ‘Empowering Women’ in the Garment Industry

How can a global garment value chain that relies on the systemic devaluation of female labour be expected to fulfil promises of empowerment for women informal workers? It can’t. Here’s why.

A Ruaab member completing a beading task. The cat design pictured takes an accomplished seamstress 3-4 hours to create.,

When you walk into the SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) Ruaab production centre in Sunder Nagri, Northeast Delhi, you will see between 10-15 women sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of embroidery stools. Some may have a child in their laps, while others just chat about their days as they weave coloured thread, beads and sequins onto the fabric that is stretched tightly over the stools before them. Many more women will be doing this same task from inside their homes across the Delhi region, simultaneously balancing the unpaid and invisible care work that reproduces their households. The women are members of the Ruaab SEWA Artisans Producer Company Limited (Ruaab), a livelihoods initiative that allows women to earn a piece-rate income by stitching and embroidering designs on clothes for multinational clothing companies like Zara, Gap, Max, and Mango.

Ruaab, an economic empowerment initiative for low-income women in Delhi, stresses the superior ethics of their production mode, which “facilitates linking the women to the mainstream market,” while offering a production model that is relatively more transparent than is the case for most other informal garment workers in India. Ruaab negotiates directly with export houses, eliminating the use of intermediaries who would normally take a cut of the women producers’ already abysmally low wages. Thus, the program provides certain protections against some of the more predatory actors in the global garment value chain. Organisational links between Ruaab and its parent organizations, SEWA Delhi and SEWA Bharat, also provide women in the Ruaab program access to other social support services and programs that SEWA offers.

However, despite opportunities offered by the program, women in Ruaab remain informal workers with very little social protection and job security. So although multinational clothing companies that are concerned about their public image can take comfort in Ruaab’s public promotion of “women’s economic empowerment,” and the guarantee of a more ethical and transparent supply chain, Ruaab is an attractive production choice for them precisely because the women producers’ labour will be informal, home-based, and poorly compensated. Clothing companies can reap the PR benefits of supporting the image of local women garment producers in Delhi, all the while maintaining the informal labour arrangements that are essential to their own accumulation of wealth. The 61st session of UN Women’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is in process in New York this week, with a stated priority theme of women’s economic empowerment. But how well will member states, speakers, NGO representatives, and other participants address the inherent dissonance in promoting women’s economic empowerment via increased participation in value chains that are built upon undervalued female labour?  

A side-event panel discussion on women’s economic empowerment at CSW 61 on March 13, 2017.

In this context, it is important to remember that women’s access to paid work does not in itself challenge patriarchal structures and relationships, or guarantee an expansion of women’s substantive rights and freedoms. Paid work is also not necessarily a harbinger of an individual woman’s sense of agency, or her ability to make strategic choices about her life. Authors like Naila Kabeer and Andrea Cornwall have written extensively on the concept of “women’s empowerment” and have reinforced these points in particular. Ruaab’s strategy of “empowering” women by granting access to the global market with relatively better terms and conditions of work, is undermined by the labour and production needs of the global garment value chain itself. Even though Ruaab provides some labour protections and social services to women producers that work with them, there remains a very firm ceiling in place that limits the extent to which an individual woman garment producer can be strategically empowered. Ruaab’s efforts do not change the important role that informal labour plays in the global garment value chain, which ultimately requires the working conditions of women garment producers to remain insecure. 

The Global Garment Value Chain, Gender, and the Informalisation of Labour

Working within the global structure of garment production that already exists, Ruaab directly negotiates orders from export houses, who then provide material and garments to Ruaab to distribute to its six centres around Delhi. From here, women involved in the company can either work on the pieces in a Ruaab SEWA centre, or take the materials and complete the stitching, beading, or embroidering tasks from their homes. Depending on how complicated the design is, the women will receive between 15-25 INR (.22-.37 USD) per item that they complete.

The women working with Ruaab are in fact, relatively fortunate because of their involvement in the program, compared to the millions of other women in India who also complete piece-work for the garment industry. However, it is necessary to unpack the gender dynamics of labour informalisation in order to complicate the debate on the role of paid work for women’s empowerment and the potential of the global garment value chain to serve as a vehicle of women’s emancipation from gender-based oppression.

Women are overrepresented in informal work around the world, but particularly within the garment sector. The garment and textile sectors employ approximately 45 million workers in India, over 70% of whom are women. The number of workers in the garment industry, and the percentage of women, is likely even higher than this figure, considering the vast informal component to the workforce that is invisible in statistical estimates. In this labour-intensive industry, informal work arrangements, which are characterized by a lack of employment contracts, social protections and labour rights, have become increasingly important within the global value chain. 

Clothing companies based in the global north that seek to minimize costs associated with production, move their manufacturing operations to countries with more flexible labour regulations and large populations of ostensibly “unskilled” and “cheap” labour. Through the use of export houses and sub-contracting firms, millions of women complete embroidery, beading and stitching tasks for a small piece-rate income, within this industry.

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Informal and home-based production is equally, if not more, strategically important than formal factory settings for garment production. The informal nature of home-based employment means that there is generally no oversight guaranteeing decent working conditions and fair compensation, no contracts protecting them from exploitation from intermediaries, and no long-term job security. The invisibility of informal work also means that individuals do not have a legal foundation around which to collectively organize and challenge corporations. Thus, the propagation of informal production is extremely important for multinational corporations in the global garment value chain, as this dynamic reinforces a very concrete power imbalance that works against individual women garment producers. 

Moreover, actors at the top end of labour-intensive global value chains have a significant interest in exploiting social divisions present within a society (such as gender, race, class, caste, age, etc.). Naturalizing social divisions also naturalizes different pay scales for different groups of workers, effectively creating different “classes of labour”. Female labour within labour-intensive industries, for example, is more poorly compensated than male labour. Gendered assumptions about the skill level, value, personal characteristics, including an assumed indifference towards collective organization, contribute to the matrix of factors that results in low wages for women involved in garment production globally. Entire production chains have been relocated based on these gendered assumptions. As Leslie Salzinger so aptly pointed out in her 2003 book, Genders in Production, it is not the women workers themselves who drive changes in global production patterns but rather ideas of who they are, how they will act, and the supposed inherent cheapness and docility of their labour.

Limitations for Empowerment and Strategic Gender Interests within the Global Marketplace

Many women’s economic empowerment programs, like Ruaab, assert that poverty can be alleviated, and women can be empowered, through greater participation in the “global marketplace.” But it is impossible to completely divorce this assertion from the broader structural and institutional environment in which the global garment value chain is located. Equating women’s access to paid work with empowerment is a problem, because it ignores the global context in which the labour arrangements at Ruaab are made. This false equivalency also fails to highlight which actors stand to make huge profits as a result of these informal labour relations, at the expense of the women producers themselves. The global garment value chain, as it currently operates, has a very strong interest in keeping women’s labour informal and unorganized, in order to maximize profit margins for the actors at the top of the chain. Within this framework, there is simply no room for the idea that women’s time and skills are valuable and deserving of proper compensation and protections.

The process of empowerment and advancement of strategic gender interests implies an expansion of freedoms, rights, and choices, as well as the ability to act on them. The women garment producers in Sunder Nagri are invited to take part in the global market, and to be “empowered,” as long as they remain willing to accept low wages and few labour protections that are the rules of their participation in the global capitalist system. Ruaab is providing the opportunity for women to make an income, but an income and the advancement of strategic gender interests are not inherently equivalent, nor should we see them as such. 

Further, Ruaab alone cannot deliver on promises of the women producers’ emancipation from gender based oppression, because it is impossible to isolate the Ruaab program from the gendered trends of labour informalisation that have defined the global garment value chain for the past forty years. When economic empowerment and livelihoods initiatives do not challenge the essentially exploitative and patriarchal nature of the value chain, informal labour relations continue, and the role that poorly compensated female labour plays in supporting profits for industry executives, is preserved.

In order for the CSW to be meaningful for the women garment producers in Sunder Nagri, and for women informal workers everywhere, discussions need to acknowledge a certain essential truth: women’s empowerment, and widespread expansion of substantive freedoms and agency, are not possible, whilst playing by the rules of the patriarchal capitalist system. The rules, and the system itself, need to be re-written in a way that recognizes the full humanity of everyone who participates.

Rebecca Reeve is a Development Studies researcher who works primarily on issues of gender and labour within global value chains. She is a former Research Assistant at SEWA Bharat and the International Center for Research on Women in New Delhi, India. Follow and/or contact her on Twitter @breeve105.