The impact of Covid-19 on women in the garment industry has worsened due to a series of underlying challenges including discrimination and harassment, according to a news brief by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
The underrepresentation of women's voices, the wage gap, unevenly shared unpaid care, family obligations, and the like are conditions the female workforce experiences.
The brief entitled "Gendered impacts of Covid-19 on the Garment Sector" aims to raise awareness of the gendered reality of Covid-19 and outline how the pandemic impacts both male and female workers in the sector.
"Women account for approximately 80% of the workforce in the garment sector, and so they are heavily affected by the pandemic. However, women also experience additional impacts due to the existing challenges they face in the workplace as well as expectations regarding women's obligations at home," said Joni Simpson, senior gender specialist for the ILO's Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
Recent ILO research highlighted how major buying countries' imports from garment-exporting countries in Asia had dropped by up to 70% in the first half of 2020 due to Covid-19.
This has led to a sharp increase in layoffs and dismissals of workers while factories that have reopened are often operating at a reduced workforce capacity.
The Asia-Pacific region employed an estimated 65 million garment workers in 2019, accounting for 75% of all such workers worldwide.
In a study conducted on garment workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Kenya, Lesotho, and Vietnam, the ILO's Better Work project found that waged employment helped advance women's empowerment in societies.
Women's employment in Better Work factories has enabled them to improve their leverage and influence in household spending and decision-making, and has increased men's participation in unpaid care work.
However, given the potential, and perhaps sustained loss of employment due to the novel coronavirus, opportunities for women's continued empowerment may decrease as workers lose their financial independence and, in some cases, become dependent on their families.
"Women constitute 60% of the workforce in Bangladesh's ready-made garment [RMG] industry. A drop in women's employment will not only impede their economic and social empowerment, but also will give rise to a shortage of experienced, loyal and skilled workers in the industry," said Tuomo Poutiainen, ILO Country Director for Bangladesh.
The news brief highlights the short, medium and long-term impacts of the crisis on women workers. It also includes a series of recommendations to help build a more just and resilient industry and greater gender equality.
The ILO recommendations include a greater focus on retrenchment and closure practices as well as addressing women's disproportionate unpaid care obligations so they can return to work as factories resume operations.
Efforts to address the Covid-19 pandemic should account for the unique ways that women and men may adopt to encounter the effects of the novel coronavirus at work and home and also in their communities.
The importance of strengthening efforts to combat violence and harassment in the workplace is highlighted in view of emerging data that shows that Covid-19 has increased the risks of gender-based violence.
In addition, the need to ensure women's voice, representation and leadership in dialogue and decision-making is also seen as key to ensuring a full and fair recovery from the pandemic.
"It is crucial that governments, businesses and other stakeholders understand the multi-dimensional impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on both women and men workers, and design policies that enable a smart, sustainable and gender-responsive recovery. Otherwise, the Covid-19 crisis will threaten to exacerbate pre-existing inequalities and hamper the social and economic sustainability in the garment sector," said Jessica Wan, Better Work Gender specialist.