Women represent 85-90% of the apparel workforce

Women represent 85-90% of the apparel workforce

As international apparel brands and retailers eye Ethiopia's potential as a global sourcing hub, research is also underway to look at the best ways to ensure the new jobs created empower women workers.

Details of a recent study shared with just-style suggests buyers and suppliers have a vested interest in ensuring that Ethiopia becomes and remains a sustainable sourcing destination.

Creating an enabling and high-performing working environment for women workers is critical to that vision – and now is the time to embed good practice and "get it right" from the beginning.

Doing so will increase the wellbeing of workers, the stability of communities, and the lasting productivity of suppliers, according to the research carried out by HERproject, the flagship women's empowerment programme of the non-profit BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) organisation.

It is currently running a pilot of HERproject with one brand in Ethiopia, before assessing how best to proceed in the country.

Based on discussions with buyers sourcing from Ethiopia, foreign investors that have established operations in the country as suppliers, and women workers who are newly employed in the industry, the research highlights the specific needs of women workers, who represent 85-90% of the apparel workforce.

Buyers are attracted by Ethiopia's low wages, minimal energy costs, and favourable trade agreements – but also require significant progress in suppliers' abilities to deliver orders if they are to increase the current low proportion of procurement from Ethiopia.

International suppliers, meanwhile, consistently face three key issues in Ethiopia: recruiting, training, and retaining workers. Low skill levels mean productivity is lower than other sourcing destinations, and many suppliers are in the early stages of putting programmes in place to build skills and improve workplace systems to support workers.

Many workers, particularly women workers, see the stable income provided by factory work as an attraction, but low wages, language and cultural barriers between indigenous workers and expatriate managers, and limited opportunities for professional advancement in factory work are all demotivating factors. As a consequence, many view factory jobs as temporary positions.

The research also found women workers are either unaware of or have little confidence in current grievance mechanisms, which raises concerns about their ability to bring up issues at work. And they often have insufficient information on health risks including sexual and reproductive health and hygiene.

Key findings highlight the need for:

  • Strengthened coordination and collaboration among government, donors, buyers, and suppliers. Promising collaborations are taking place and should encourage the wide range of actors, all of whom have a role to play. Coordination specifically on workplace programming is needed to tackle the diverse needs of workers and suppliers.
  • Increased investment in women workers and in creating an enabling and high-performing workplace. At present, suppliers encounter significant difficulty in retaining workers, and women workers complain of an insufficiently supportive working environment. Investing in workers by building up individual skills and agency and strengthening management systems will ensure that jobs work for women in particular and that turnover decreases.
  • After years of pre-investments, it is time to pick up the pace. While several initiatives to improve industry conditions are underway, there is a short window to make progress before the costs of operation become too high. BSR's own experience and lessons learned in South Asia's apparel industry confirm that retrofitting "decent jobs" too long after the onset of the industry is difficult to accomplish.

Since its inception in 2007, HERproject has worked in more than 420 workplaces across 14 countries, using peer-to-peer training and access partnerships to empower women working in garment, footwear, electronics, agricultural, and horticulture supply chains. Participants have included Abercrombie & Fitch, The Children's Place Retail Stores, Clarks, Etam, Fast Retailing, H&M Hennes & Mauritz, Levi Strauss, Li & Fung, Marks & Spencer, and Primark Stores.

Click on the following link to read a recent series of articles on just-style looking at the massive developments taking place to elevate Ethiopia into a compelling new garment and textile sourcing hub for brands, retailers and their suppliers.

Apparel made in Ethiopia