There are currently 60–70 million garment workers worldwide; 75% are women. The vast majority are engaged in informal employment, which the ILO has defined as “all remunerative work (i.e. both self-employment and wage employment) that is not registered, regulated or protected by existing legal or regulatory frameworks, as well as non-remunerative work undertaken in an income-producing enterprise. Informal workers do not have secure employment contracts, workers’ benefits, social protection or workers’ representation.” Informal workers are particularly vulnerable to violence, especially women workers, due to the intersection of their gender and their precarious working conditions. Addressing violence and discrimination against informal workers is particularly urgent as a matter of scale, since the informal economy remains the main source of employment in the global south.
The globalization of the garment industry has led to significant restructuring, shifting control from manufacturers to retailers who contract the production of their products. This has forced manufacturers to rely on an increasingly cheap, controllable labor force to remain competitive, causing sweatshop-like conditions to emerge in factories in the south, and the number of women garment homeworkers increasing in the north.
The conditions of women garment workers are generally very poor. Compounding their insecurity as informal workers are minimum wage violations, unsafe working conditions, forced overtime, child labor, pregnancy-based discrimination, abuse and sexual harassment, exposure to toxic substances, and retaliation against workers who attempt to organize to end abuse and sexual harassment.
Nothing illustrates the precarity of garment workers as much as the Rana Plaza tragedy in Dhaka, Bangladesh. On April 24, 2013, a building housing a number of garment factories collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring more than 2,000, making it the deadliest structural failure accident in modern history. The day before the collapse, workers complained of cracks in the building, and were subsequently evacuated. The next day, they were ordered back to work — and to their deaths. The collapse of the building highlights the dangers for workers who are not able to unionize or organize, from the lack of safety regulations for workers — which violates their rights to safe working conditions — to their inability to demand the building be inspected and fixed.
The Rana Plaza disaster also brought forward questions of State and corporate accountability. Under international law, governments are responsible for protecting the rights of their citizens and residents as workers. In 2016, the ILO adopted the report of the Committee on Decent Work in Supply Chains, which recognized the poor treatment of workers in global supply chains and the responsibility of corporations to address them. However, the recommendations provided in the report are non-binding. It is crucial to establish a legally-binding convention that protects workers in the informal economy, especially those whose vulnerability is compounded by their gender, race, sexual orientation, and migration status, among other dimensions of difference. The ILO instrument currently under development to address violence and harassment in the world of work should make sure that all actors are held accountable for abuses of workers.
The CEDAW Committee has noted the overrepresentation and particular vulnerability of women in the informal economy in general recommendations 26, 30, 34, and 37. Both Urmila Bhoola and Rashida Manjoo, special rapporteurs on slavery and violence against women respectively, have also referenced the poor working conditions of women in the informal sector, naming the garment industry as one sector of note. However, much more remains to be done.