speri.comment: the political economy blog

Gender inequalities and sexual harassment in global value chains

To change the dynamics of gender inequality we need to change those of the contemporary global economy

Lara Bianchi, Research Associate and Coordinator at the Business and Human Rights Catalyst at the Alliance Manchester Business School, The University of Manchester

The new Oxfam report –Reward Work, not Wealth– is a bitter and strong message to the leaders of our globalised world; a lucid analysis of the need for bold and different actions to reduce inequalities. Such inequalities are embedded in our society, and can’t be in any way justified by economic and market reasons. Human dignity’s abuse must stop, and a systemic change must be initiated now.

Among inequalities, the gender one is a potpourri of cultural and social norms which interfere with women workers’ rights. The Oxfam report clearly states that to ‘tackle extreme economic inequality, we must end gender inequality’, creating a vision for a new ‘human economy’ which respects the rights and dignity of the female workforce, preventing sexual violence and ensuring living wages. Women are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs and are too often subject to discrimination and harassment. Socioeconomic and structural factors, attitudes and beliefs, fuel women’s vulnerability and their exposure to sexual violence, often driven by an unfair power and hierarchical dynamic between a man and his subordinate(s). It is an entrenched cultural problem which pours into workplaces, whether they are farms, factories or offices around the world.

Global Value Chains

To change the dynamics of gender inequality we need to change those of the contemporary global economy. The massive expansion of Global Value Chains has brought a substantial transformation of production and work, which can potentially create new opportunities to reduce gender inequalities. For this to happen, corporate value chains must use the workplace as an engine for changing eradicated social norms. Business must stop reinforcing or exacerbating existing gender discrimination, factoring gender in corporate human rights due diligence.

Women Workers

A worker woman is not vulnerable per se but becomes vulnerable because of the systemic inequalities permeated in our societies and economies, because of her working conditions, her exposure to sexual harassment and other forms of violence perpetrated in her workplace.

The dignity of women workers being harassed is violated, their working environment becomes humiliating and offensive, and their personal and social lives profoundly distressed.

Sexual harassment can potentially lead to fear, despair, apathy, isolation, in which the victim is stuck in her poorly paid and unsecured job, in her perception of being unworthy.

In this context, and in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, big corporations can be transformative in contributing to social justice for women workers. In a collaborative effort, the business community has indeed a great opportunity to step in and lead the change, to leverage public actors across global value chains to find viable solutions for protecting women workers’ rights. An alteration of the root causes of gender inequalities, secure access to an effective remediation process for victims of abuse, an evolution of regulatory mechanisms on sexual harassment can lead to a fundamental and systemic change.

Ending gender inequalities

The first step for companies is the recognition of their responsibilities to protect women workers’ rights to end endemic sexual violence in each and every segment of their value chains. Sexual harassment is a violation of fundamental rights and human dignity which a company must assess, prevent and remedy when it occurs. The business community needs to partner with actors from the ground, in particular, local NGOs, workers associations, and -where the conditions allow- local public institutions. Workers need to be engaged in the designing of plans of actions, in grievance mechanisms, in educational programmes. Finally, companies need to work with their peers and their suppliers, finding sustainable and long-term solutions which can help changing habits and a culture of inequality. It is not a battle that an actor alone can pretend and hope to win.

Ending gender inequalities in global value chains and promoting a zero tolerance on sexual harassment must be a shared effort, in accordance with the business responsibility to respect human rights and as a substantial contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals (in particular SDGs 5, gender equality and women empowerment; 8, decent work and economic growth; and 10, reduced inequalities).

This blog was first published by Policy@Manchester and is republished here with permission.

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