Women’s Rights

Women make up 40% of the global workforce, yet make less than their male counterparts in every country on Earth.

Women make up a vital part of the economic and social fabric that hold their communities together, yet that work is rarely valued at the same level as is men’s work. Much of this has to do with what opportunities are available to them. Women are disproportionately likely to be poor, under-educated, employed in low-wage or unpaid work, and subject to dismissal for getting married or having children. In many industries, female workers are systematically denied their rights to regular pay and regular working hours; equal pay for equal work; permanent contracts; safe and non-hazardous work environments; and freedom of association. Egregious abuses, including sexual violence, harassment and forced pregnancy tests, are all too common.

Moreover, the social status of women has not opened up at the same pace at which women have been brought into the workplace. They may have increasing opportunities at work, but they are prone to domestic violence and unequal expectations at home. It has become a mantra at development organizations, including the World Bank and United Nations, that investing in women is the best way to improve a range of societal concerns and that women’s full participation in society is a critical factor in economic development.  But more importantly, women’s rights groups have long recognized that full equality is not possible unless women can speak out for themselves.

ILRF is committed to helping women do just that at work. We are continuing a long tradition of women pushing forward labor rights. With the Rights for Working Women Campaign (RFWW), ILRF has been at the forefront of securing fair treatment and wages for women in the global workplace. We also work with partners to help women around the world organize in industries with predominantly female workers. 


Women are driving change, despite significant obstacles.

Since industrialization began, women have been exploited as a source of cheap labor for growing industries needing work in low-skilled, light manufacturing. Garments in particular have been a stepping stone industry, recruiting women to work outside the home. This tradition continues today in export processing zones (EPZs) throughout Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, where women comprise between 70-90% of the labor force. They produce not only garments, but agricultural products, electronics, and many of the household goods we purchase today. Women’s rights are routinely denied in these factories. These women workers are subject to physical and sexual harassment on the job, forced pregnancy tests, and gender-based discrimination in addition to more general workplace abuses like wage theft and bans on unionization.

Though these jobs have given women certain levels of financial independence they did not have before, the wages have remained low and opportunities to advance skills few. Other problems quickly emerge, including:

  • Women’s role at work changed but their role in society remained subservient, creating expectations they work day night;
  • Increased rates of violence against women;
  • More single-women headed households lacking a male counterpart; and
  • Youth violence emerging as a result of idle youth with too little parental guidance.

These problems, however, are not a result of women entering the workforce, rather a symptom of the inequality that already existed and shifting expectations both of and from women. Women who work are less dependent on husbands, and thus more able to assert their rights within the home. Similarly, women who have access to quality education, labor unions, and a variety of opportunities for work are less dependent on their employer and more able to assert their rights on the job.

Unfortunately, these factors are often not present for women. Three international agreements have been put in place to protect the rights of female workers: ILO Equal Remuneration Convention (No. 100), Discrimination of Employment (No. 111), and Maternity Protection Convention (No. 183). But implementation of these conventions is mixed at best, and social conventions still disempower women in many countries. It’s still legal to discriminate against women in many parts of the world and even when women are equal under the law, the reality is often quite different.

Women also have a tradition of leading the way for change to address these issues. In March 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York. Of the 500 workers at the factory—mostly young women—146 died. They inspired a movement, however, that brought together suffragettes, women trade unionists and other concerned activists to create more just labor standards in the United States. A similar situation exists today in Bangladesh, and ILRF is committed to turning these tragedies into opportunity for much-needed labor reforms that lift up the voice of workers in their jobs, at the homes, and in their communities.


Labor rights and women’s rights are inherently entwined.

With the international attention focused on the garment industry in South Asia right now, an industry comrpised primarily of female workers, it is an important place to begin promoting women's rights at work on the ground. ILRF is thus leading an effort to advance dialogue on the role of women in the apparel industry. More than 1,500 workers died in less than eight months of 2013 in preventable factory disasters in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Nearly every major brand buying clothes in Bangladesh has now signed on to one or more high-profile, new initiatives to improve factory safety in Bangladesh, where the numbers of workers lost has been greatest. Only one of these agreements, however, requires the kinds of fundamental changes that can reform the apparel industry. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh requires from signatories a binding commitment to stick with their suppliers to ensure repairs are made and safety measures put in place, with the support and oversight of local and international trade unions. ILRF is committed to encouraging more signatories to the Accord, and applying this method to other dangerous export industries in which women are disempowered.

This effort build off a long history of ILRF work in promoting women’s rights. Since 2006, we have teamed up with partner organizations in developing countries to conduct research and develop strategic domestic work plans. In March 2012, we published the report “Women in the Honduran Melon Industry” which detailed the low wages and occupational safety risks faced by the temporary field workers in packing centers and plantations around Honduras. We followed up the study with urgent email actions. Over 4000 supporters responded, flooding the inbox of the Irish multinational fruit company Suragroh-Fyffes. The company eventually committed to a 20 percent raise for workers, full compliance with Honduran law, clean spaces for workers to eat on lunch break and at least one day off each week.

Free trade agreements: The ILRF also supports the inclusion of anti-discrimination clauses and enforceable labor rights mechanisms in NAFTA, CAFTA, the U.S.-Peru and U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreements, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, and the Multi Fibre Agreement.