Seizing the Moment: Company Strategies to Address Sexual Harassment

By Stephanie Barrientos, Professor, The Global Development Institute - The University of Manchester

Sexual harassment and gender based discrimination have long been rife in the production of consumer goods. Barrientos’ new book, using the Kenyan flower industry as an example, highlights how campaigns can lead to positive change in business practice; subsequently benefitting both women workers and business performance.

The #MeToo movement has highlighted how pervasive sexual harassment is across sectors and countries. These issues affect, on a daily basis, millions of women workers producing the food, garments and electrical goods we buy in our shops.

Gender and Work in Global Value Chains: Capturing the Gains? is recently published, drawing on years of research. It examines how gender discrimination is entrenched across global production. Importantly it also highlights, through examples such as the Kenyan flowers sector, how civil society pressure and proactive company strategies can lead to beneficial outcomes for women workers. 

Gender discrimination and harassment in global production

Women workers form the backbone of production for many consumer goods, yet they face systemic discrimination. Women, more than men, struggle to receive permanent contracts and their work is more insecure. As temporary or casual workers women lack benefits, including access to maternity leave, childcare or sick pay, and are unlikely to be unionised. Additionally, female workers are often subjected to verbal and sexual harassment at work, often from male supervisors and managers.

Civil society advocacy and campaigns have led many multinational companies to apply codes of labour practice in their global value chains. These often include core International Labour Organisation Conventions. Codes have had some positive effects improving measurable standards, such as health and safety. However, it is argued they have been ineffective at addressing discrimination or freedom of association.

Addressing sexual harassment in Kenyan Flowers

The Kenyan flower sector provides a good example of the benefits to companies, and workers, of changing the underlying business environment – in order to address sexual harassment and promote gender equality.

Approximately 100,000 workers are employed in Kenyan flowers, 75% of which are female.  In the early 2000s NGOs, human rights, civil society and trade union organisations in Kenya and Europe campaigned over poor labour conditions for women workers. These included constantly renewed temporary contracts, violation of health and safety rules in greenhouses and overtime at short notice to meet supermarket orders, negatively impacting childcare.

Temporary female workers commonly faced sexual harassment by permanent male supervisors and women feared losing their jobs if they did not comply. As temporary workers, women were not unionised and had no independent means of complaint.

A UK NGO made a complaint to the UK Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). This led to a visit to Kenya by ETI members including supermarket and NGO representatives. As a consequence, a number of leading flower farms implemented significant changes that included:

  • Clearer gender policies on workers’ rights, training, promotion and grievance procedures.
  • Participatory social auditing to identify sensitive issues facing women workers.
  • Converting women workers from temporary to permanent workers, enhancing their job security and rights.
  • Increase in women workers’ trade union membership and inclusion under collective bargaining agreements.
  • Setting up gender committees on farms, providing an independent channel for women workers to voice grievances.
  • Longer lead times for delivery provided by some supermarkets, with workers receiving more notice of overtime.

Improvements to Kenya’s employment law and Constitution, in 2007 and 2010 respectively, further strengthened the national legal framework for labour standards and gender equality.

The business benefits of the changes soon became clear to leading flower companies. A 2013 World Bank report showed that enhancing the rights of a largely female workforce led to lower labour turnover, more committed skilled workers, higher productivity and quality.

Subsequently, more women became supervisors and some moved into managerial positions. The combined policies helped to change business culture. They led to a significant reduction in instances of sexual harassment and abuse, and women have channels to complain. However, despite many advances, workers continue to receive sufficient pay in real terms to cover a living wage.

ILO Convention on gender based violence

The ILO Convention on violence and harassment at work, adopted in June 2019, provides a major international landmark in addressing issues facing millions of workers, particularly women. The case of the Kenyan flower sector illustrates that systemic change in business culture can play a positive role in addressing gender discrimination and abuse. Multiple actors have a role to play.   

  • Civil society: trade union non-government organisations in Kenya and Europe played a key role raising and monitoring labour abuses.
  • Companies: UK supermarkets and leading flower farms improved their gender policies.
  • Women’s Voice: providing independent channels for workers to raise complaints, without fear of retribution
  • Government: legislation to enhance labour standards and gender equality.

Key learning for business

Despite initial steps, further action is required if female workers and businesses are going to continue to benefit. Companies must lead by example and ensure global sourcing principles and supplier employment, adequately address sexual harassment and promote gender equality. They must collaborate with governments, NGOs and relevant trade unions to ensure the rights of women are protected and respected. Finally, companies must demonstrate and vocalise how respecting human rights and female workers not only improves their well-being, but enhances business performance.

Contact Details:

Stephanie Ware Barrientos, Professor of Global Development, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, s.**********@ma********.uk

Stephanie Barrientos (2019) Gender and Work in global value chains: Capturing the Gains? Cambridge University Press.

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