Decent Work for women: Hivos makes a case for living wages

March 17, 2014

During the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March, government delegations convene for two weeks at the UN to discuss progress and outstanding challenges in achieving equal rights, opportunities and benefits for women and men across the world. This year the CSW is reviewing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and what they have done to reduce gender inequality and violations of women’s rights.

Economic gender inequalities are high on the agenda and remain notoriously unresolved and persistent in high, middle and low income countries alike. Key issues are the gender wage gap and the occupational segregation between women and men. Women form the majority of workers in more precarious, insecure, informal and unsafe jobs, and the bulk of the burden of unpaid care is also carried by women.

Encouraged by Hivos, the Dutch government hosted a dialogue in New York with the different parties involved to make the case for living wages and decent work for women. The session focused on the garment sector and was facilitated by Hivos, who has been campaigning in recent years to promote the Decent Work Agenda for women in global production chains, such as the flower industry, the garment sector and coffee production.

The standard of a living wage to pay for the basic needs of workers and their familie, recognised in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is still a challenge to implementation on the ground. Many workers do not earn a living wage, and even where legal minimum wages exist these do not cover the basic needs of workers and their families.

Governments have the responsibility to set norms and ensure compliance with labour laws, for which the ILO conventions provide the minimum standards. Implementation of standards requires collaboration between all parties involved. Governments, multinational companies, supplying industries, trade unions, civil society organisations, workers and consumers all play a crucial role in securing decent work in (global) production chains.

The side event focused precisely on connecting these different parties in the discussion on decent work for women in the garment industry. Apart from the Dutch government, spokespersons from the Bangladeshi government, the trade union IndustriALL Global Union, H&M, and Asia Floor Wage Alliance were present.

The session was well-attended and spurred lively discussion. Hivos representatives Ireen Dubel (Senior Advisor Women’s Rights) and Caroline Wildeman (Campaign Coordinator Women@Work) received much positive feedback for taking the case for living wages for women to the Commission on the Status of Women meeting in New York.

Almost a year after the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,100 garment workers and injured over 2,000 more, most of them women, both Bangladesh and the Netherlands are committed to promoting living wages in the garment sector. Lilianne Ploumen, Dutch Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, in partnership with the government of Bangladesh, called for much greater attention for women’s economic empowerment than this has received in the Millennium Development Goals. Minister Ploumen emphasised this again in her speech in New York on March 10.

The challenge for all parties involved is to turn good intentions into concrete practices of decent work and living wages for women workers on the ground.