The first National Woman’s Day, a precursor to International Women’s Day, took place in the United States in 1909. It honored a garment workers’ strike the year before, in which women protested the poor working conditions, low wages, and sexual harassment they faced—and it predated by two years the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, in Manhattan.
Today, the clothes we wear remain a symbol of the struggles women face, only now the women making them tend to be almost entirely in poorer countries. On March 8, International Women’s Day, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider those women.
Women make up the great majority of garment workers around the world. In Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest clothing exporter after China, estimates put the share of garment workers who are women as high as 80%. The proportion is estimated to reach just as high (pdf) in Vietnam, while in Cambodia, women account for an estimated 90% of the workers filling its garment factories. Globally, some sources reckon that women make up approximately three-quarters (pdf) of garment workers. It’s hard to pin down exactly how many garment workers are women, but in all likelihood, most of the clothes you own were stitched together by a woman’s or girl’s hands.
That job may have been an invaluable lifeline for her. Women remain far less likely to be part of the labor force than men, and in many countries, they are still barred from education and certain jobs. Garment work, which typically requires no formal education or training, has offered countless millions of women a way to support themselves and their families.
In Jordan, for example, only 14% of women are part of the labor force, yet fully 70% of garment workers are women. The government has promoted the sector as one of the few ways women in rural areas can find employment. Evidence across countries indicates that women’s employment in manufacturing rises (pdf) as garments and textiles make up an increasing share of the country’s exports.
But these jobs, vital as they may be, often come with serious problems. Garment industry wages are notoriously low, often falling short of a living wage. It’s common for women to work extremely long hours, toiling for 10 to 12 hours or longer a day. They may be denied sick leave, or be fired for becoming pregnant. Many workers are migrants who travel from rural areas to cities, where some end up living in dorms, confined by guards. Unsafe conditions in many factories have not been addressed, even after international outrage over fires and building collapses that have killed thousands.
Sexual abuse is rampant. In Bengaluru, India, one survey found that one in seven female garment workers had been raped or forced to perform a sexual act. A recent study of 23 female garment workers living in slums in Bangladesh found that they often experienced “emotional, physical, sexual, and economic” violence at home and at work. One survey of 134 female garment workers in Guangzhou, China found that 70% said they had been sexually harassed.
Simply avoiding brands that manufacture in low-cost countries such as Bangladesh is not an answer. “The first thing we often think is to want to boycott a place like Bangladesh, and I really discourage that,” Sarah Labowitz, the co-founder and former co-director of NYU Stern’s Center for Business and Human Rights, who has studied the country’s garment industry extensively, told National Post in 2016. “I talk to a lot of workers who their message for consumers in North America is ‘Keep buying clothes, we need these jobs.'”
But as shoppers, we can pause for a moment while we’re buying all those clothes that we pay less and less for, and consider how they made their way to us. We can demand that brands only work with factories that they can be sure respect the rights of women and pay them fairly. We can pressure governments to regulate the industry and hold employers responsible for their workers’ treatment—which would be a wise move as well as a moral one, since economic growth and women’s rights go hand-in-hand.
Women are still fighting many of the same battles today as they were a century ago. We should honor them all, past and present, by remembering how much work still remains to be done.