8 Mar 2023

The women who make our clothes are invisible. It’s time to change that.

IWD 2023
Anouki Ramesh Jadav
© Subindu Gharkel

Fashion is a 1.53 trillion dollar industry, yet the people who make our clothes – overwhelmingly women – live in poverty.

On 8 March – International Women's Day – we highlight the reality of these women and call for legislative change to call brands to account and ensure fair treatment and fair pay for the women behind our clothes.

Today, 80 percent of textile workers are women. They are essential to the functioning of the fashion industry but face socio-economic and political challenges that make them more vulnerable than their male counterparts.

Women workers may face abuse, forced and unpaid overtime, deductions from their wages, and gender-based violence. Despite working 12 hours or more a day, six days a week, they struggle to make ends meet. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, they are paid two to five times less than what they need to support themselves and their households.

An invisible workforce

Most of us don't know that the embroidery or sequins on our favourite t-shirt were sewn by a woman in her own home, working without a contract or social protection. Yet in South Asia, 50 million women work at home in the textile industry[1]. These invisible homeworkers are the lowest paid and most precarious workers in the sector: they earn on average 40 percent less than factory workers.

Trapped by the very nature of informal work, they are not protected by labour law, are isolated from their employers and co-workers, and lack information on their rights. It is virtually impossible to establish relations with trade unions and thus to make their voices heard and assert their rights. This precariousness is the consequence of fast-fashion, with textile factories pressurised into producing more for extremely low prices, while brands maximise their profits.

Due to the growing demand of citizens for sustainable fashion, some fashion brands have committed to address human rights throughout their supply chains. These voluntary initiatives however do not make the cut. To stop workers’ rights being sacrificed any longer in the name of profit, legislation is urgently needed.

Requiring companies to respect the rights of women workers

On 23 February 2022, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a directive on corporate sustainability due diligence. Under this directive, multinationals wishing to sell products on the European market would be required to operate in a way that respects human rights and the environment.

However, the current proposal is gender-blind, as denounced by more than 80 NGOs and trade unions. To ensure women and girls are not left behind, we are advocating for gender-responsive due diligence rules in the European Parliament and demand that national governments convey this message to the European Council. Without gender-responsiveness legislation, it is impossible to reduce discrimination, sexist and sexual harassment, pay inequalities, or to improve women's knowledge of their rights. The final text of the directive must integrate gender at every stage of the due diligence process (identification of risks, monitoring of measures put in place to prevent and mitigate them, provisions for access to justice for victims, etc).

Wages at the heart of these issues: the Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign

A living wage is a human right – regardless of gender. Supported by around 50 NGOs and trade unions, the Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign calls for European legislation requiring companies in the garment, textile and footwear sector to provide living wages for the textile workers of their supply chains.

Under the European Citizens’ Initiative[2], we only need 1 million signatures of European citizens to get the European Commission to take action.

We can all sign the petition of the Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign, exercise our power and demand a political change that, if successful, will be a decisive step towards improving the working conditions of these women.

Together with members of Parliament, activists, other NGOs and journalists, join us in mobilising around these two initiatives, so that the rights of these invisible women behind our garments are at last acknowledged and respected.

Sign the petition


[1] https://www.fashionrevolution.org/hidden-hands-homeworkers-and-their-role-in-the-global-fashion-value-chain

[2] The European Citizens' Initiative is a unique way for you to help shape the EU by calling on the European Commission to propose new laws. Once an initiative has reached 1 million signatures, the Commission will decide on what action to take.