Gender equality has made significant strides across the globe. The proportion of women in the labour force has grown in all regions, alongside declining participation rates among men. But this expansion has seen women being channelled into low-paid, low status, positions in industrial sectors characterised by low capital, poor mobility and limited job security. Women are overrepresented in non-formal, casualised, and precarious work conditions. In the UK, 22% of women are reported to fall below the low-pay threshold against 14% of men. Only one third of women who work overtime are paid for their labour, compared with half of men.
Aside from general pay discrimination which sees women on average still paid less than men for the same work, women workers also face a range of gender-specific discrimination, sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. In relation to pregnancy and maternity leave, issues include reduction of pay or hours, or termination of their employment. Their disproportionate share of the responsibility for caring for children, sick or elderly relatives, undercuts their bargaining leverage and ability to walk away from abusive working conditions.
And as the #MeToo movement has revealed, women in all spheres of work face persistent and often debilitating levels of threats and sexual harassment. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of how gendered violence and harassment may be systemically used— far from the backdrop of Hollywood – as a means to exploit women workers in low-wage, low-skill, informal industrial sectors. According to research by the Trades Union Congress, 67% of women workers surveyed in the hospitality sector reported some form of sexual harassment from colleagues, managers, customers or hotel guests.
However, women’s experience of labour abuse and exploitation remains under-researched and poorly understood. Attention paid to women and trafficking has tended to focus on trafficking of women for sexual exploitation, with less focus given to the traditional labour market. The lack of solid research and understanding of the lived experience of women workers – particularly those in marginalised sectors – makes finding mechanisms of prevention more difficult.
FLEX is committed to changing this. In 2017 we established the Working Group on Women Workers and Exploitation, a group of academics alongside experts from frontline organisations supporting women workers in highly feminised industrial sectors. Insights and evidence gathered through working group discussions and case studies formed the basis of our publication Women in the Workplace: FLEX’s Five Point Plan for Combatting Labour Exploitation. This Five Point Plan provides an overview of the discrimination, employment practices and labour abuses that drive exploitation of women workers and sets out key principles and actions for targeted, gender-aware labour market enforcement policies and practices.
FLEX is now embarking on an innovative new project to build on and push this work forward. We aim, firstly, to uncover the working conditions of some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups of UK women workers. The project will seek to understand the structural drivers of abusive business practices associated with extended global supply chains and the ‘race to the bottom’ dynamic. These factors have increased sub-contracting, zero-hour contracts, agency-based labour recruitment, informal labour and other business practices that make workers replaceable, dispensable and exploitable—– features that impact all workers regardless of gender. But we will also dig deeper to uncover specific drivers of gender-based labour abuse and exploitation through in-depth interviews with workers in highly feminised, marginalised, low-status industrial sectors such as hospitality, cleaning and garment manufacturing.
FLEX believes effective change will only come from community-led action, so rather than proceeding in the traditional fashion—where expert NGO researchers obtain information from the ‘subjects’ of the research and use this for policy advocacy— we will be using a ‘participatory action research’ methodology. This approach directly engages affected communities and supports them to become the owners of the process. This involves recruiting ‘peer researchers’; individuals who are members of, or who have greater cultural and language connection with, specific communities of workers. Here we will be building on earlier learning from our work in the construction industry.
The insights we glean will help to find more effective solutions to tackling the abuse and exploitation of women workers. We know from previous FLEX research that women face unique barriers to reporting on abuses they experience, and that government authorities are not doing enough to prevent and provide remediation. Women workers are less likely to report labour abuse and exploitation than men, meaning that labour enforcement agencies need enhanced approaches for identification of at-risk women workers. We expect this research to provide useful new knowledge to support gender-sensitive state enforcement and we will continue to support key agencies to strengthen their strategies in ways that address the specific risks and abuses faced by women workers. We look forward to sharing our findings over the next three years and driving meaningful, worker-led change for women workers in the UK.