Women Human Rights Defenders: Training Youth to Lead Reform in the Apparel Sector

25 September 2014

The key to reform in the apparel industry lies in enabling young, first- time workers to stand up for their rights. As the vast majority of apparel sector workers are young women, better collaboration between women's rights organizations and trade unions is an imperative.

This report was featured as a chapter in ‘Overcoming the Youth Employment Crisis : Strategies from Around the Globe’, a joint report co-authored by the global partners of JustJobs Network.

Many countries in the Global South see apparel – a labor-intensive sector that can help drive export-oriented industrialization – as a stepping- stone toward development. In some countries, like Cambodia and Lesotho, the textile and clothing industry employs up to 90 percent of the total number of manufacturing sector workers. The vast majority of garment sector workers are female; for instance, 76 percent of Thai garment workers and 85 percent of Bangladeshi garment workers are women. Cheap, flexible and young female labor forms the backbone of this industry. But the modest economic returns of formal employment in the sector often come at a heavy personal cost to these young women. Now, as governments and apparel industry leaders take a deep look at reforms, in the aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza factories collapse, it’s an important time to identify strategies that can give a voice to these young workers.

This report analyzes the serious challenges faced by young apparel sector workers in the Global South – challenges aside from worker safety that lie outside the media spotlight. It cites evidence based on field experience that starts to answer some of the difficult questions pertaining to the employment of young women in the sector. Are these young women able to build a career and a life from this early employment experience in the apparel sector? How will these jobs, which are the first formal sector employment for many, impact these workers in the future? Does the increased employment of young women enable a substantial change in their role in society?

This report substantiates the claim that upward mobility is not the outcome for most young apparel sector workers. It then goes further to outline a strategy for improving working conditions in the apparel industry by training young women to become effective labor organizers, examining a case study from Honduras.