Women in the garment manufacturing industry

    • By,
      Arushi Jha Thakur- Academic Associate, Kautilya

Reorganization of global production processes since the 1960s facilitated the emergence of global factories in Asian, Latin American, and African countries. As these countries experienced globalization and the growth of export-oriented industries, feminization of labour started to emerge. This reconfigured gender roles and the autonomy and independence of women while also giving rise to new forms of exploitation along the lines of gender, class, caste, etc. This brings us to the question of how women workers have fared in garment manufacturing. To answer this, we need to understand women’s position in garment manufacturing.Garment manufacturing constitutes 2% of India’s GDP and 17% of its exports and employs 45 million people within which women workers constitute more than 60% of the workforce.

In India, feminization of labour was especially relevant in the context of the growth of export-oriented manufacturing, that relied on paying lower wages to increase profit margins. Therefore, the success of export-led industrialization depended on women’s mass employment in production, given the increasing competition and need for cutting labour costs. Out of all the export-oriented sectors, Indian garment manufacturing has been women-intensive since its inception.

South Asian women have long been perceived as “orientally docile” from the lens of western literature, which explains their concentration in low-skilled, low-wage employment. Standing (1989)put forward the argument that young women of developing countries were long oppressed socially and economically, resulting in their willingness to work for lower wages. Thus, the stereotype of “oriental docility” propagated that women were less likely to unionize, strike and were ready to work under inhospitable conditions for low wages and longer hours.

This concept of docility comes with its share of demerits. Firstly, it originates from the traditional economic theory, which treats labour as passive agents in production and attributes women’s unequal incorporation in labour market to exogenous ideological factors, turning a blind eye to the role of the market in their subordination. Secondly, it ignores the weaker fallback position of women in traditional societies that puts them at a disadvantage in negotiating for better opportunities within the household decision-making process. Thirdly, Bina Agarwal highlights how South Asian women have adopted various mechanisms to secure their self-interests while appearing to conform to the traditional patriarchal norms of subordination. Instead, employers’ determination to circumvent labor laws through decentralization, frequent closure and threats of layoffs play an important role in women’s ability to unionize.

Women’s concentration in lower-skilled and lower-paid jobs is not however solely due to gender bias but also due to other socio-cultural and economic constraints that restrict women’s mobility and lower their capacity to participate in the public sphere, impeding their full potential participation in the labour market. Moreover, sociocultural norms that dictate that women must prioritize their household responsibilities over any other work results in less value attached to the work that these women do with regard to garment manufacturing. Further, women in South Asian countries are incorporated into the labour market on unequal terms in comparison to their male counterparts.

It has also been observed that management plays a crucial role in perpetuating women’s subordination by having a strong preference for “young women with fewer years of schooling” that are unable to find jobs offering them better working conditions and wages. This preference is born out of the belief that uneducated women are long oppressed, habituated to their oppression, and will be less likely to unionise. Unlike men, women are averse to unionisation not due to low social consciousness but due to the lack of enough employment opportunities. This weakens their ability and willingness to challenge their employers through unionisation.Further, women workers in garment manufacturing face the problem of having to negotiate within households to acquire the right to work by convincing their families to allow them to work outside the home. As these women have fought hard to acquire their right to work, their rights at work become a secondary priority. They know strikes can be extremely costly in these industries as production is time-bound and can shut down the factory risking their employment. Unionisation is also costly for unskilled workers, who in majority turn out to be women in garment manufacturing. There have been instances where women have organized themselves for increment in wages, but due to the casualty and unskilled nature of their employment, the strikes have been ineffective in addressing their concerns and often led to their dismissal in contrast to the benefits accrued to permanent male workers endowed with skills. Thus, lower education levels among women workers marginalize them to jobs lacking social security and requiring minimal skills.

High informality of the garment industry enables low wages and exploitation of women workers. Reports from NGOs and media have highlighted the abysmal conditions of garment women workers subjected to hazardous working conditions, harassment, verbal abuse, and humiliation. While increased economic participation is perceived to enhance women’s agency, and give them an avenue to challenge patriarchal norms, the patriarchal structure of our society is such that even when it allows women to participate in the workforce, it creates discriminatory and unhealthy working conditions.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.