The Issues: Discrimination

Everyone wants to be given a fair and equal chance to find work, to access the same opportunities for training or advancement, and to receive the same rewards, regardless of race, origin, age, gender, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, politics or religion. Everyone deserves to be treated with equal respect.

Although women make up 80% of garment factory workforces, they continue to experience discrimination through payment of lower average wages, workplace harassment, lack of appropriate facilities for women and failure to protect the rights of pregnant women, or those seeking flexible working on return to work. Women are also underrepresented in management or at senior levels in factories and mills. Companies must not discriminate against those affected by HIV/AIDS, nor should workers be subjected to enforced testing. 

Workers have also experienced discriminatory practices when they have engaged in politics or trade union activism. In one Human Rights Watch study, workers from 35 factories in Cambodia reported anti-union practices including dismissal and intimidation of newly elected leaders.

Discrimination within the fashion industry is likely to reflect the level of discrimination in the wider society in which it operates. So, for example, where there are caste systems or racial or cultural prejudices against certain races, religious practices or regional origins, people in those groups are more likely to be vulnerable to exploitation or abuse at work. 

Examples of discrimination

  • Women were paid less than men in the garment, textile and footwear industries in eight out of nine Asia-Pacific countries, particularly in India and Pakistan, according to a 2016 ILO study.
  • A 2016 investigation into modern slavery in southern Indian spinning mills found that most of those being exploited were Dalits, in other words, those at the bottom of the caste system. 
  • Despite progress in employment of disabled people in Bangladesh’s garment, leather and footwear industry, a recent study showed that only one in four factories had a specific policy for including workers with disabilities.

Tackling discrimination can be difficult and sensitive, and making progress requires companies to go beyond basic legal obligations or audit tools, which often fail to detect the scale of the problem. 

However, there are many examples of businesses that are building up best practice in understanding the barriers that certain groups of people face, and strategies to include and provide opportunities for previously marginalised groups. 

Take Action

Companies can support progress in tackling discrimination by:

  • having clear policies of non-discrimination in place, and supporting training and awareness-raising aimed at building a culture of non-discrimination;
  • supporting campaigns for gender equality and women’s economic empowerment, and practical solutions to facilitate women’s inclusion and adequate childcare;
  • ensuring equal access to programmes of training and staff development, and encouraging participation of those who are underrepresented in more senior positions; 
  • supporting freedom of association and workers’ organisations in delivering equal opportunities policies.

For more information:

Ethical Trading Initiative Anti-Discrimination Guidance

Centre for Disability & Development Guidelines for Workplace Inclusion in Bangladesh Garment Sector 

International Finance Centre Good Practice Note on Non-Discrimination and Equal Opportunity

International Dalit Solidarity Network 

Better Work HIV/AIDS Guidelines in the Workplace (Cambodia) 

ILO Guidance on Integrating HIV/AIDS into Garment Factory Health and Safety Committees

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