Making Supply Chains Safe for Women Workers: Where Compliance Programs End, Supplier Relationships Matter

By Jeremy Prepscius, Vice President - Asia-Pacific, BSR and Christine Svarer, Director, BSR HERproject

The Guardian reported on a recent study that “Nearly half (43.1%) of 763 women interviewed in factories in three Vietnamese provinces said they had suffered at least one form of violence and/or harassment in the previous year”. The question is how buyers and suppliers address this issue?

The Guardian reported on a recent study of Vietnamese clothing, footwear, and outdoor wear manufacturers, which found that “workers in Vietnamese factories have been harassed, groped, and even raped”. This was both sadly shocking and sadly predictable.

Though compliance programs are in place, they have not guaranteed harassment-free work environments. The prevalence of harassment is sadly shocking: nearly half of the women interviewed reported having faced abuse in the past year. The abuse “ranged from groping and slapping to rape and threats of contract termination.” What’s more, this took place in a Vietnamese factory that has been under the global corporate compliance microscope since the mid-1990s.

The story is also sadly predicable in several ways. First, it is well-known in the compliance industry that corporate compliance auditing has difficulty picking up on harassment issues. This article underlines that harassment and gender-based violence is a reality in the (garment) supply chain. No matter what your social compliance data tells you.  This new study should drive us to revisit questions of auditing purpose and to ensure that the safe-guarding of workers—and not just of buyers’ reputations—is at the heart of our efforts.

A second sadly predictable finding was “a high correlation between overtime and workplace abuse.” Stress, pressure, and exhaustion rarely lead to good outcomes, as this study makes clear: “Violence and harassment was 3.8 times more likely during the high season than the rest of the year; 2.4 times more likely when workers reported working overtime of 30 hours or more a month; and 1.6 times more likely when workers could not refuse to work overtime.”

Complying with Vietnamese legal requirements—that overtime cannot exceed 30 hours per month and 200 hours per year—could significantly reduce harassment and abuse. And yet overtime has been one of the most difficult and challenging issues for supply chain compliance programs to really impact. Solutions, as outlined in the article, must be built through supplier relationships.

The overriding message is that, when it comes to tackling harassment and abuse, compliance programs alone are inadequate, need to be rethought with the worker at the center, and should measure and bolster the programs put in place to address root causes and build real change.

How can buyers and suppliers contribute to real, lasting change?

Buyer-supplier relationships matter in the everyday as well as in exceptional circumstances.  Corporate values stand as the baseline for decision-making. The starting point for buyers should be their own corporate values—which should be the values they expect their supply chain to mirror. These corporate values must be not just listed in a Code of Conduct, but integrated into business processes, trade terms and conditions, internal action, and corporate leadership.

One clear area for action that can directly benefit buyers and suppliers while contributing to tackling the harassment issues identified in this study is women’s empowerment. Ensuring that women workers have the tools, skills, support, and confidence they need will drive business benefits and address underlying norms and the all-too-prevalent acceptance of violence from both men and women.

Putting this value into action requires both buyer and supplier action. On the buyer side, “walking the talk” is fundamental, as well as providing incentives and recognition to suppliers which embrace and implement the value. Actions might include signing the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) and conducting a Gap Analysis to pinpoint areas for improvement. Buyers can also ensure that gender equality is adequately reflected in social auditing practices. When it comes to incentivizing suppliers, Lindex’s WE Women provides one instance of suppliers’ performance on gender equality being incorporated into overall sustainability performance scorecards.

Suppliers also need to “walk the talk.” This might mean evaluating and improving their own workplace attitudes, policies, and standards.  Suppliers can also proliferate and promote knowledge and skills to their workforces and communities through workplace-based interventions while ensuring that management leads with appropriate policies, attitudes and behavior and support is offered to workers to both understand what is right and wrong, how they can set boundaries for themselves and/or report issues they encounter.

BSR’s HERrespect brings together buyers and suppliers to implement such programs and has seen significant impacts in changing attitudes to harassment and gender-based violence.  It also supports suppliers to build or improve grievance systems. As the article notes: “encouragingly, the study found that women working in factories with clear complaints procedures recorded far lower levels of abuse than those without such procedures.”

The least shocking finding from the Guardian article is that, if we put the welfare of workers, particularly women at the center of purpose, business benefits follow.

By acknowledging the challenges and aligning values with supply chain partners, buyers and suppliers can make change.  Harassment and violence is a reality for many women workers. You can do something—now—to improve it.

Join us.

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