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The Better Work initiative has launched a new five-year strategy to enhance gender equality in the garment industry.

The new strategy aims to promote women’s economic empowerment through targeted initiatives in apparel factories and by strengthening policies and practices at the national, regional and international levels.

“Through its research and on-the-ground experience, Better Work has shown that investing in women is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” says Better Work director Dan Rees. “We have seen that training female supervisors can increase factory productivity by up to 22% for example, so this strategy is about collaborating with partners to scale up what we know works.”

Although women represent around 80% of the workforce in the garment sector worldwide, they are concentrated in the lowest-paying, lowest-skilled occupations, while gender-based discrimination during recruitment processes and sexual harassment in the workplace remain widespread.

Social norms and the predominance of working mothers also contribute to a sizeable gender pay gap, the organisation says, with female factory workers earning up to 21% cent less per hour than their male counterparts.

The Global Gender Strategy aims to address these issues in four ways: by working to reduce discrimination and sexual harassment; promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights, maternity protection and work-life balance; increasing representation of women in worker and employer committees and organisations; and helping women develop career opportunities.

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By GlobalData

The strategy was launched earlier this week at the Regional Conference on Women and the Future of Work in Asia and the Pacific, a two-day event in Bangkok, Thailand, sponsored by the Australian Government and the ILO aimed at highlighting the tools and policies needed to ensure that women have an equal share in the region’s economic potential.

In the conference’s opening address, Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, Dr Sharman Stone, acknowledged the significant achievements of the programme to date for women and children.

“Workers in Better Work factories report higher morale, lower rates of abuse and exploitation, and fewer instances of sexual harassment,” she said. “And these impacts continue beyond the workplace, with more children enrolled in school and healthier than before.”

Meanwhile, speaking at the Better Work launch event, Australia’s deputy head of Mission to Thailand, Octavia Borthwick, added addressing gender inequality would trigger up to US$17trn in global value.

Her comments were echoed by Tomoko Nishimoto, ILO assistant director-general and regional director for Asia and the Pacific: “Work is changing and there is a real risk that the prospects for women will become even more challenging over the coming years. Anticipating these challenges is critical as we won’t achieve our shared goals of poverty reduction and decent work for all if women cannot play an equal role in society and the workplace.”

Currently active in 1,450 factories employing more than 1.9m workers in seven countries (Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti, Indonesia, Jordan Nicaragua and Vietnam, with a pilot in Egypt), Better Work brings together all levels of the garment industry to improve working conditions and boost the competitiveness of apparel businesses. It is the flagship programme of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation, a member of the Work Bank Group.

According to an independent study of Better Work by the United States’ Tufts University, the programme has helped cut the gender pay gap by up to 17%, reduced sexual harassment concerns by up to 18%, and increased women’s access to prenatal care by as much as 26%.

The report also demonstrated that a workplace free of harassment leads to higher profitability and that quality jobs for women have knock-on development impacts including better health for workers and their family members and improved education for workers’ children.