IWD: The role of global businesses in advancing women’s rights

22 February 2018

It can be difficult to appreciate the reality of the situation faced by millions of women every day in seemingly distant corners of the World but International Women’s Day is an opportunity to educate ourselves on some of those conditions and take action to push for change. The enormous scale on which women are facing extreme suppression, sexual violence and financial inequality simply because of their gender should be addressed, even when this occurs across the globe. Those of us living in wealthier and more equal societies should not excuse ourselves from this responsibility on account of our ignorance or physical distance from the environments in question.

In an economically globalized World, businesses operating internationally are in a position to exert some influence over the policies and values of their service providers and business partners. It is crucial, therefore, that these global businesses emphasise the importance of equal rights and equal pay to their service providers and business partners and expect these business to meet certain minimum standards. Global businesses should choose their service providers and business associates carefully in order to affect positive change. 

It is no surprise that sexual harassment within the workplace, poor wages and extremely difficult working conditions have been identified as issues faced regularly in industries that predominantly employ women. Across the globe, cultural norms consistently make it difficult for women to push for an improvement in the circumstances in which they work. The recent #MeToo campaign (see Generation #: The power of social media in the fight for progress) and recent news on the gender pay gap at the BBC both also highlight the presence of these issues within our own society.

The garment and agricultural industries are both examples of this trend. Over 40 million people are employed in the garment industry in Asia alone and approximately 75% of those employees are women. In countries such as China, India and Bangladesh, the ‘sweatshop’ conditions in which millions of women work are harshly enforced and typically involve low wages, long hours and sometimes even sexual harassment by senior staff. There is little, if any, power to demand change or scope to report sexual assault. Over 2.5 million women work as cocoa farmers in areas including West Africa and South America and experience unequal treatment on a serious scale. They possess fewer rights and receive fewer wages, often earning only a fraction of what their male counterparts receive.

Both of these industries have strong ties to businesses based in more developed and wealthier countries which do uphold and enforce policies promoting gender equality, including the UK. Unfortunately, this commitment to equality within the workplace often does not extend to the individuals who are responsible for creating or farming the products sold by those same businesses. If a business outsources work such as the production of the garments it wishes to sell, I would argue that it must maintain responsibility for the conditions faced by its wider workforce, which would, I would argue, include the employees of its suppliers. When businesses are interacting with suppliers in any industry, it is important that they consider what policies those companies have in place for their employees and whether these should be improved.

The Clean Clothes Campaign has promoted the importance of adhering to a Code of Conduct that outlines basic rights that must be provided to the individuals (both women and men) involved in the garment industry. This sentiment is one that must apply to employees of all industries and must be implemented across the globe. A parallel can be drawn with the Living Wage initiative. I am proud to work for a firm that is a Living Wage employer, that is, that pays its employees the real living wage and requires its service providers and contractors to do the same.

The increase in business relations and international trade between Saudi Arabia and countries that promote stronger rights for women has been seen to impact the rights of Saudi women in a positive way. Saudi Arabia has traditionally enforced strict laws relating to women; they are not allowed to drive and must obtain a male guardian’s permission to marry, travel, undertake serious medical treatment or enter employment. However, King Salman has demonstrated a commitment to relax some of these laws in recent years, by allowing women to have access to education and healthcare without requiring the consent of a male ‘guardian’ and taking steps to enable them to drive and have greater access to employment in the near future. Saudi Arabia has set out a plan to modernise its economy and diversifying its workforce by employing a larger amount of women is a key component of this objective. This is a clear example of one society in which some change may have been positively influenced and advanced by a boom in economic relations.

While most businesses are not large enough to successfully and unilaterally bring about global change, they can attempt to exert influence over the internal policies and employment practices of their contractors or suppliers worldwide in order to bring about positive change. This is the opportunity that international trade and cross border commercial relationships present. The consumers and clients of those global businesses also have a role to play. Where clients place importance on issues such as equal pay or safe working conditions, businesses are likely to accommodate these were possible to secure economic benefit.

This is how internationally operating businesses and consumers can drive change in the treatment of women on a global context and #PressforProgress. 

This blog was written by Simran Tatla, Legal Assistant in the Regulatory Team.

IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.

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