Corporate sustainability needs a gender lens

31 03 2023

Outside the Department of Labour in Dhaka last month workers demanded that their shuttered garment factory be reopened Photo: Mamunur Rashid /

The draft EU directive on corporate sustainability remains gender-blind. And what you don’t see you can’t fix. by CAROLINA RUDNICKVIZCARRASYLVIA OBREGON QUIROZ and ANDRIANA LOREDAN from Social Europe: Reposted: March 31, 2023

When industrial agriculture and salmon production came to Chile, they brought new jobs to rural and indigenous women. But the work came with a hefty price tag.

It wiped out ancestral practices and shattered solidarity-based communities. Those working the graveyard shift in salmon-processing plants endured gruelling hours and saw their family bonds deteriorate.

The salaries were low—so low they couldn’t even be considered a living wage. When the pandemic hit and the food industry shuttered, unemployment grew in nearby communities. Going into debt became unavoidable for many, while others hung by a thread.

The situation was doubly difficult for women workers, because of gender norms and intersecting vulnerabilities. Still the main caregivers, their poverty wages and brutal working conditions also affected children and elderly family members dependent on them.

Especially insidious

Gender discrimination and inequality in global value chains have been widely documented but remain largely unaddressed by European companies and regulators. Abuses of women’s rights are especially insidious in the food-serviceselectronics and garment industries, where women make up most of the workforce. 

Women in these export-oriented manufacturing sectors are vulnerable to wage theft, union-busting and other violations of labour rights—especially if they are young, migrant and/or poorly educated. Reckless business activities prey on and exacerbate inequitable gender roles, such that 71 per cent of those trapped in modern slavery are women.

All of this is hidden in plain sight. The long and winding value chains that stretch across the globe reinforce power imbalances and the maldistribution of costs and benefits. For instance, most brands don’t seem to care that it takes just four days for a chief executive from one of the top fashion labels to make what a Bangladeshi garment worker will earn in her lifetime.

Similarly, fossil-fuel companies have made record profits from the energy crisis while fuelling climate collapse and pushing millions into starvation. Yet TotalEnergies is rewarding its chief executive with a scandalous bonus of nearly €6 million, despite standing accused of causing massive forced displacements in Uganda and Tanzania. What is often overlooked is how land-grabbing affects women, who comprise only 15 per cent of landholders globally but depend on the land to grow food and secure water. 

Sexual violence is another endemic issue, festering in the deep underbelly of multinationals’ value chains. Recent investigations have uncovered abuses in tea plantations and wind parks. These will only be eradicated if we ensure corporate accountability.

Stumbling at the first hurdle

As the largest trading bloc in the world, the European Union must lead on this front. Civil society and trade unions have hailed the forthcoming corporate-sustainability directive as a huge opportunity to advance women’s rights and gender equality globally, while uprooting abuses of human and environmental rights along companies’ value chains and holding them liable for harm.

Yet despite the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, declaring that ‘gender equality is a core principle of the European Union’, the commission stumbled at the first hurdle in making this a reality for the women making our food, clothes and electronics. The draft directive completely ignored the enhanced risks of business for women, girls and other marginalised groups.

Then in December, the Council of the EU, representing the member states, scrapped the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women from the draft directive’s list of human-rights standards corporations must respect. This is a huge setback in the fight for women’s rights.

Do European citizens know how little their governments care about women? This gender-blind approach will simply fortify toxic gender dynamics and leave women further behind. It certainly will not protect women environmental and human-rights defenders from the misogynistic violence disproportionately used to silence and control them.

Changing course

The European Parliament and the council can still change course. Co-legislators must ensure rules extend across the entire value chain, because it is in the lower tiers where women are over-represented and invisible to corporates in head offices.

For women and those in situations of vulnerability, access to justice must also urgently be improved. Removing legal barriers to bringing transnational court cases against companies is essential. That includes reversing the disproportionate burden of proof borne by claimants, who usually have limited access to evidence such as internal documents.

European lawmakers must also oblige companies to carry out impact assessments that identify how corporate activities affect women specifically—and include provisions on gender equality and the protection of human-rights defenders erased from earlier drafts. To guarantee that women’s exploitation is no longer a source of profit, major brands must map their international value chains and collect gender-disaggregated data, to give women the information they need to alert companies about risks and ways to remedy abuses.

World of difference

For women working in salmon-processing plants in Chile, it would make a world of difference to be heard and taken into account. By carrying out due diligence and consulting women in a meaningful way, European buying companies would learn about the problems women face—how supervisors monitor their bathroom breaks or penalise their medical check-ups and maternity leaves. You cannot fix what you do not see.

With key votes in the European Parliament and the ‘trilogue’ negotiations on the directive approaching among commission, council and parliament, EU leaders need to get their act together to guarantee that the products we use are untainted by abuses.

On International Women’s Day, the commission said it stood ‘united with all women to build momentum for their rights across the globe’. The EU must now present a united stand to protect the millions of women who work in the factories, farms and packing houses supplying our essential needs.

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