Advancing gender justice on Asian fast fashion supply chains post-COVID-19: Guidance from ILO’s Convention 190 on it’s first anniversary

On the first anniversary of the ILO’s adoption of C190 on Violence and Sexual Harassment, we are now grappling with seismic shocks to economic security, public health, and freedom of association and assembly caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

One year ago, on June 21, 2019, the General Conference of the International Labour Organization adopted the ILO Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (C190) and Recommendation 206 (R206). Women trade unionists, workers, and allies from around the world celebrated this landmark standard, articulating the rights of all workers to be free from violence and harassment—including for the first time in ILO history, the substantial problem of gender based violence and harassment (GBVH). Exposing and eliminating GBVH globally across formal and informal sectors has had a significant impact in elevating and prioritizing the effect of workplace GBVH in the global human rights arena. In turn, the ILO standard setting process on violence and harassment in the world of work catalyzed a groundswell of organizing around the world to win the international standard, provide legitimacy to transform workplaces, and bring together labor and women’s organizations in new and important ways. 

On the first anniversary of the ILO’s adoption of C190 and its accompanying recommendation, we are now grappling with seismic shocks to economic security, public health, and freedom of association and assembly caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Women workers have been disproportionately affected by this crisis and a gender lens on worker issues—and more broadly—is a perspective that has been absent from major employer and government responses. 

Across the global economy, women have long been concentrated in insecure, lower-paid, part-time and informal employment, with little or no income security or social protection, such as health insurance. Low wage women workers are least likely to have access to limited social safety nets, and most earn wages too low to save. 

The unprecedented impacts of COVID-19 are affecting the health and livelihoods of more than 150 million workers in global supply chains and 40 million workers in fast fashion supply chains—a workforce largely made up of women. Government and corporate responses to COVID-19 have exposed vast structural inequalities created by supply chain production models. Lead firms have reaped financial benefits from extracting labor from workers at the lowest possible cost—paying below living wages and sidestepping contributions to national social protection schemes by driving states to compete through deregulation. In short, fast fashion supply chains have systematically created and benefited from the precarious conditions of supply chain workers. They are responsible for eroding individual and social safety nets, precipitating the humanitarian crisis facing millions of workers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Global supply chains also created incentives for and took advantage of increasing numbers of women entering paid employment in the formal sector—albeit employment based on sub-minimum wages and working conditions and contingent employment structures like contract labor.  Profit margins for suppliers and brands were reliant on the profits that came from squeezing women workers and their lack of alternative choices. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting contraction in employment will disproportionately affect women’s employment, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities for women workers. Suppliers have used the excuse of COVID-19 to retrench women trade unionists as a form of union busting.  Women-headed households as well as households dependent on women’s income are increasingly at risk.

In order to address the gendered labor market, economic, and health inequalities, government and corporate responses to COVID-19 must have a gender lens that interrogates power dynamics, relative access to resources, and examines how power relations are interconnected with gender inequality. he COVID-19 reality underscores the urgent need for the hard-won principles laid out in ILO C190. Brands must enact human rights due diligence that foregrounds these specific risk assessments and adhere to an accountability framework to address them across their supply chains.  

Last week, Global Labor Justice published a new report titled,  Advancing Gender Justice on Asian Fast Fashion Supply Chains Post COVID-19: Learning from ILO’s Convention 190 On Its First Anniversary, that reviews the gendered impact of COVID-19 and the need for a transformational approach to prevent and end gender-based violence and harassment.  At the first anniversary of its adoption, the report shows how ILO Convention C190 gives direction to the responses brands, employers, and governments should be taking in the context of Asian fast fashion supply chains, which primarily produce consumer apparel and footwear.

C190 is the first international labor standard to lay out a gender-inclusive approach to addressing violence in the world of work and measures to end GBVH, including addressing risks associated with discrimination, unequal relationships of power and occupational health and safety. These protections apply to all workers, including temporary, contract, home based, and apprentice workers. C190 also recognizes links between domestic violence and the world of work, and recognizes the interconnection between the policies that govern not only labor, but also non-discrimination, migration, and criminal law. If broadly ratified, C190 can play a part in supporting women workers and their organizations to demand a world of work free from physical, psychological, sexual and economic harm.   

Women’s leadership and organizing that led to the historic adoption of ILO C190 one year ago highlights that meeting the challenges posed by C190 in the COVID-19 context requires the leadership of women in trade unions and civil society organizations. Women workers and trade union leaders are rising to this challenge, leading demands for accountability and gender justice. On fast fashion supply chains, women workers, trade unionists, and leaders have called for brands to end the economic violence facing women workers by paying in full for orders completed and in production; and supply chain relief contributions (SRCs) to compensate for the income loss resulting from suspension of work for various reasons, including quarantine and order cancellation. Now, more than ever, we need to advance C190 protections for women workers who are identifying and addressing GBVH at work. Violence free workplaces are a precursor to upholding freedom of association and fundamental rights at work.