Nearly 190 million women work in global supply chains worldwide. They keep the economy running, supplying the world with products and services. At the same time, the global economy has many negative impacts for women that are different from those men experience.¹ Regulations and laws are thus essential to ensure multinational companies provide special protection for women.
Structural discrimination against women cuts across all levels of the global workforce. Women are much more likely than men to work in insecure or lower-paid jobs and to encounter unfair and unhealthy working conditions, as well as being underrepresented in managerial positions and more likely to encounter discrimination and sexual assault. In addition to paid work, women around the world also bear the brunt of unpaid work, such as housework, childcare and other care roles. Patriarchal social structures further exacerbate the precarious situation of many women in the Global South and North. Women are particularly affected when economic activities lead to environmental disasters or human rights violations. They face huge obstacles in gaining access to justice and redress. At the same time, women are underrepresented in trade unions, which thus often lack a gender-sensitive perspective.
The coronavirus pandemic has heightened gender inequalities. Poverty, exploitation, and discrimination against women have increased worldwide due to the breakdown of global supply relations. At the same time, the pandemic has drastically cemented the pattern of dependency between the Global South and North, along with the associated power imbalance. The textile industry, where women make up about 80 per cent of the workforce worldwide, is a case in point. Multinational companies based in Europe cancelled orders worth millions at very short notice. Factories had to close. Women workers in Bangladesh, India or Ethiopia lost their jobs overnight. The loss of income led to poverty and hunger, particularly due to the lack of social security systems.
Any serious approach to making global supply chains sustainable therefore also entails resolutely opposing exploitation of women. Multinational companies have so far failed to adequately protect women’s rights and promote gender justice. Attempts to prevent human rights violations through audits or other voluntary initiatives have often proven unsuccessful. Laws and regulations are essential to ensure companies fulfil their duty to protect people and the environment. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, published in 2011, point the way. They seek to ensure that multinational companies address human rights and environmental rights violations throughout their supply chains and provide redress if harm is done. Companies are also encouraged to design their corporate due diligence to provide greater protection to especially vulnerable or marginalised groups. Women undoubtedly fall into that category.
In the light of the UN Guiding Principles, several countries have passed what are known as due diligence laws. While these are a crucial step towards more just, inclusive and sustainable globalisation, they do not focus sufficiently on gender justice. In 2019, the UN published the report Gender Dimensions of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which formulated proposals for gender-equitable production networks for the first time. In 2020, a broad alliance of German civil society actors followed up with the paper Gender Justice in Global Supply Chains. It addresses how gender-responsive supply chain laws should be designed.
While German legislation in this field fails to address gender justice, the EU’s draft Directive on corporate sustainability due diligence is not completely gender-blind. For example, the draft lists the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women among the human rights provisions to be respected. However, it does not prohibit any form of discrimination against all women, including non-employees. It likewise does not call for gender-sensitive risk analysis or address access to legal remedies that genuinely enable women to claim redress. ILO Convention No. 190 on violence and harassment in the workplace is not yet included either. Gender justice must come to the fore in future discussions on EU legislation.
“Progress towards an equitable world” is the motto of this year’s German G7 Presidency. Making globalisation fairer and more sustainable is a pre-requisite for long-term progress and justice. In 2015, G7 heads of state and government were already calling on companies worldwide to integrate the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) into their business operations. Implementing the global WEPs, an initiative from UN Women and the UN Global Compact, enables companies to make a specific contribution to promoting and empowering women. Evaluation followed in 2020 and sparked enormous disillusionment. Despite publicly acknowledging the principles, many companies entirely ignored them in their business practices. One thing is certain: companies only fulfil their duty to protect workers worldwide if regulations and laws to this effect are in place. That means the G7 Presidency must set an example: national and European legislation on gender-just supply chains is crucial. An internationally binding agreement is also needed to regulate company behaviour worldwide and ensure access to justice and redress for human rights violations or environmental pollution by businesses. Negotiations are currently underway in the UN Human Rights Council on the UN Treaty on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises. The G7 should engage constructively in these negotiations and advocate a strong, gender-just international treaty.
¹ People of other gender identities likewise encounter discrimination. However, this blog post focuses on women and girls because of their significant role in many supply chains.
Franziska Korn, Human Rights and Business Policy Officer, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung
Karolin Seitz, Head of Business and Human Rights Programme, Global Policy Forum