Garment Workers: WIEGO's Work

WIEGO seeks to promote a better understanding of how the working poor in the informal economy are inserted into the global economy, and with what consequences; and to identify strategies to promote fair trade for informal producers who want to export their goods and ethical trade for informal wage workers or homeworkers who work in global value chains.

Because the garment sector is one of the most globalized sectors and employs large numbers of women under poor working conditions, garment workers were the first category of the global informal workforce that WIEGO focused on.

For information on the size, significance, contribution and working conditions of garment workers around the globe, as well as organizational activities in this sector, see Garment Workers 

WIEGO’s Response

Home-based workers (many of whom produce garments) are a key constituency of WIEGO organized by several of our Institutional Members. WIEGO decided early on to have a special focus on the garment sector. Activities have taken several forms:

  • developing, using, and disseminating a method for global value chain (GVC) analysis in the garment sector that includes a focus on homeworkers
  • undertaking comparative cross-country research studies
  • convening research workshops and policy dialogues
  • documenting good practice examples
  • promoting fair and ethical trade for garment workers 

1. Value Chain Analysis Manual and Resource Packet

As we began reviewing the literature on garment workers, we realized that home-based garment workers – both the self-employed as well as sub-contracted workers (called homeworkers) – were not studied by most researchers. We also found that most analyses of global production or value chains focused on the industry as a whole and on the value chains of specific firms: with little (or no) focus on workers of any kind. We decided, therefore, to add a focus on workers, including informal workers and specifically homeworkers, to global value chain analysis in the garment sector. To do this, we commissioned a manual and a resource toolkit on researching homework in global garment value chains.

For more information on this topic, read:

2. Set of Comparative Garment Sector Studies

A global value chain analysis in the garment sector was carried out in three stages: 

Research Design Workshop

In April 2002, at a research design workshop co-organized by the North-South Institute and WIEGO, a common conceptual framework for a comparative set of garment studies was developed that included the following key features:

  • Worker focus: broadening of sub-sector and GVC analysis to focus on workers – not just entrepreneurs, firms, or industry as a whole – and, more importantly, to look at workers in the lowest links of the chains
  • Homeworker focus: analysis of the ambiguous employment status of homeworkers (i.e. industrial outworkers who work from their homes), including features of both dependence and independence (typically they own the means of production and have to absorb many non-wage costs such as maintaining equipment and paying for utilities)
  • Own-account worker focus: analysis of the peculiar features of own account work – often in ambiguous employment status mid-way between dependent workers and self-employed: notably, they are often dependent on single employer, contractor, or supplier
  • Global value chain dynamics: attention to the inter-relationship within specific global value chains of a) workers at different points along the chain and b) immigrant workers in countries in the North and informal workers in the countries from which they migrated

For the background issues paper was prepared for this research design workshop, read “A Common Thread: Issues for Women Workers in the Garment Sector” by Julie Delahanty, NSI. 

Research Studies 

To carry out this research, WIEGO established a research collaboration with IDS, Sussex, in particular with its Globalization Team. As a result of the workshop research teams from Argentine, Canada/Mexico, India, Morocco, South Africa and Turkey, submitted proposals to WIEGO for a multi-country research project.  For a summary of the country studies, see Summary of Country Studies – 2002-2003

Research Findings Workshop

In March 2004, the IDS, Sussex and WIEGO organized an international research workshop on the garment sector studies. It was attended by 35 participants from 14 countries. Fourteen country case studies were presented that examined the impact of changes in trade regimes on employment patterns within the garment industry. To allow material to be covered in a short amount of time, two page summaries were prepared in advance and circulated to all participants, enabling presenters to concentrate on the two cross-cutting themes of the workshop: phasing out of the Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA); and labour standards. Read a short report on the workshop and a summary of the country studies.

3. Policy Dialogues

WIEGO co-organized two regional conferences on home-based workers. The first, a South Asia Regional Conference on Home-Based Workers, was held in Kathmandu, Nepal in 1999.  For the background study prepared for the conference and the joint declaration coming out of the conference, read:

The second, a North American regional workshop, was held in Los Angeles in October 2001.  Read the report of this workshop in English | Spanish. 

4. Research and Policy Dialogue (with WIEGO’s Social Protection Programme)

Working collaboratively with the ILO and the World Bank, WIEGO developed a framework for and commissioned comparative case studies on risks and access to social protection of workers in two GVCs in two countries each: garment GVCs in Thailand and the Philippines; and horticulture GVCs in Chile and South Africa. As far as we know, this was the first time that value chain analysis had been used as a lens through which to explore social protection. We developed a methodology that added three layers of analysis to the standard “mapping" of workers/units/value-added under GVC analysis: the depth of labour legislation and social protection coverage in the chains; the identification of key institutions and stakeholders, including those governing production and employment relations along the entire chain; and identification of key pressure points in the chain, including existing downward pressure points (currently leveraged by big companies) and potential upward pressure points (to be leveraged by workers and their organizations).

Case studies were then used as the concrete basis for a dialogue between representatives of three international organizations – the ILO’s Social Security Division, the World Bank’s Social Protection Network, and the WIEGO Network – to scrutinize their own social security/social protection approaches, to identify the extent to which they addressed the social protection needs of informal workers.

As a final step, an edited volume was published that contained the framework, the case studies, the key themes of the discussion that followed, and the policy implications. This volume, entitled Chains of Production, Ladders of Protection: Access to Social Benefits of Workers in Garments and Horticulture(2003)was edited by Francie Lund (Director, WIEGO Social Protection Programme) and Jillian Nicholson, and published by WIEGO in collaboration with the ILO-STEP Program and the World Bank Social Protection Network. This edited volume includes two case studies of whether and how workers in garment value chains (Philippines and Thailand) and horticultural value chains (Chile and South Africa) gain access to social protection; comparative approaches to social protection of three organizations (ILO, WIEGO, and World Bank); and an introduction synthesizing the proceedings and recommendations of the technical consultative workshop at which the case studies were presented and discussed. See the Philippines and Thailand case studies. 

5. Other Research and Case Studies

Background Papers for 2005 World Development Report

In 2004, WIEGO was commissioned by the World Bank to write three background papers on the investment climate for informal businesses for the 2005 World Development Report on the investment climate. Two of these background papers feature self-employed garment workers:

  1. Chen, Marty, Renana Jhabvala, and Reema Nanavaty, 2003 – “The Investment Climate for Female Informal Businesses: A Case Study from Urban and Rural India.”
  2. Lund, Francie and Caroline Skinner – Background Paper for the 2005 World Development Report: The Investment Climate for the Informal Economy: A Case of Durban, South Africa. Case study on garment manufacturers and street traders in Durban, South Africa. 

Booklet on SEWA’s Membership

In 2006, Marty Chen (WIEGO International Coordinator) wrote a booklet entitled Self-Employed Women: A Profile of SEWA’s Membership. It features a write-up on the garment workers among SEWA’s membership. See the section in this publication on garment workers.

6. Engagement on Fair and Ethical Trade

Fair Trade

  • SEWA's Trade Facilitation Centre: WIEGO played a technical advisory role in the development of SEWA’s Trade Facilitation Centre (TFC) set up to link rural producers in SEWA’s membership to global markets. Marilyn Carr, then Director of WIEGO’s Global Trade Programme, wrote the original funding proposal for the International Finance Corporation (IFC); and two UK consultants (identified by WIEGO) have provided design and marketing services.

Ethical Trade

  • Membership and Participation in Ethical Trade Initiative: Starting in 2008, WIEGO engaged in an experimental project with a High Street retailer of fast fashion to analyze the impact of purchasing practices on working conditions in one factory in Turkey. The project involved an analysis of purchasing practices along the supply chain from end to end. It found evidence that the fashion and garment industry’s way of working drives poor working conditions and an increasing informalization of labour. Read more about this project
  • Documentation of Best Practices - Marilyn Carr, first Director of WIEGO’s Global Trade Programme, edited a book of case studies on best practices in linking women producers and workers with global markets called Chains of Fortune commissioned and published by the Commonwealth Secretariat. This book was launched at the September 2004 meeting of Finance Ministers from Commonwealth countries (along with another book prepared by WIEGO for the Commonwealth Secretariat, Mainstreaming Informal Employment and Gender in Poverty Reduction.) Both books were also featured in a book launch organized by the Commonwealth Secretariat at the March 2005 meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN.

    One of these case studies focused on efforts to promote ethical labour standards in the Bangladesh garment industry: Kabeer, Naila and Simeen Mahmud. 2004. “Rags, Riches and Women Workers: Export-Oriented Garment Manufacturing in Bangladesh.”

7. Presentations at Relevant Seminars or Conferences

  • 2002 Conference of International Association for Feminist Economists (June 2002, Barbados) – WIEGO researchers organized two panels for the annual IAFFE conference. The first panel, entitled “Rethinking the Informal Economy: Definitions, Measures, and Linkages” featured presentations by Marty Chen of WIEGO/Harvard Kennedy School, Caroline Skinner and Imraan Valodia of the University of Natal, Jeemol Unni of the Gujarat Institute for Development Research. The panel was chaired by Kathleen Barnett of the International Center for Research on Women.

    The second WIEGO panel, “Informalization in the Garments Industry: South Africa and India” featured presentations by Melissa Ince and Caroline Skinner of the University of Natal, as well as Navsharan Singh of the National Council of Applied Economic Research. The panel was chaired by Marty Chen of WIEGO/Harvard Kennedy School.

  • 25th Anniversary Symposium of SEEDS Booklet Series (February 07, New York) 
    The SEEDS booklet series, launched in the early 1980s, documents innovative approaches to economic empowerment of working poor women. Marty Chen (WIEGO International Coordinator) has served for many years on the editorial committee of the series; she wrote two of the booklets in the series and an introduction to one of two edited volumes and was a member of the planning committee for this 25th anniversary symposium. The former and current Directors of WIEGO’s Global Trade Programme, Marilyn Carr and Elaine Jones, co-planned and co-chaired a panel on “Fair Trade and Global Markets: Access and Rights” that featured panellists from Ghana, Jamaica and Uganda.

 8. Garment Sector Studies by WIEGO Members

Several active members and research collaborators of WIEGO have done research on garment workers in the following countries:


Heintz, James. 2007. “Human Development and Clothing Manufacturing in Cambodia: Challenges and Strategies for the Garment Industry.”  Amherst, Mass: Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts/Amherst.


Unni, Jeemol and Namrata Bali. 2002. “Subcontracted Women Workers in the Garment Industry in India” in Balakrishnan, R., ed. The Hidden Assembly Line: Gender Dynamics of subcontracted Work in a Global Economy. Bloomfield, Connecticut: Kumarian Press, pp. 115-144. Singh, Navsharan 2000 – “Situating Home-based Work in the Webs of Macroscape

Jhabvala, Renana and Ravi Kanbur. 2002.  “Globalization and Economic Reform as Seen from the Ground: SEWA’s Experience in India


UNIFEM 2000, White, Salas and Gammage. 2003. A box on page 20 of Progress of the World’s Women 2005: Women, Work, and Poverty summarizes the findings of the UNIFEM-Mexico publication.

South Africa

Caroline Skinner and Imraan Valodia. 2005. “Informalising the Formal: Clothing Manufacturing in Durban, South Africa.”

For more information, see Garment Workers in the Occupational Groups section of this website.

Occupational group