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At the recent UN conference on Business and Human Rights held in Geneva, AMBS became one of the first business schools to ever be invited to host a panel discussion. The topic of the debate was how to combat sexual harassment in global supply chains.

AMBS Simon Industrial Fellow Andrea Shemberg remarked in her opening address: “Sexual harassment is fuelled by gender discrimination, is routinely under-reported in the workplace, and routinely ignored or misunderstood.”

She said where such harassment was systemic there were very few anecdotes about how the root causes have been tackled. However one good example is the East African flower industry where NGOs, trade unions and human rights organisations have played a critical role in helping tackle sexual harassment of female workers on farms.

East African studies

Professor Stephanie Barrientos from the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester has carried out extensive research into the flower industry in Kenya and Uganda.

She told the panel how the industry was just one example of how systemic gender inequalities are rooted in global supply chains and extend across “multiple sectors, countries and companies”.

In the floral industry she said women not only provided cheap labour to multinational companies but also have ‘nimble fingers’. “It means they can produce quality goods such as flowers which need very delicate handling.”

Ethical trading

Cindy Berman, Head of Modern Slavery Strategy at the Ethical Trading Initiative, said the issue of widespread sexual harassment in the East African floral industry first came to light through complaints from one of its members about farms in Kenya.

“We called retailers to the table and launched an investigation into what was going on. We were shocked at what we found, namely endemic sexual violence, precarious temporary contracts for women, and poor health and safety conditions.”

She said this prompted soul-searching by retailers and engagement with suppliers. “What was critical was recognition by companies that they had an obligation to address and remedy this. We had an honest conversation with all the key players, recognising who needed to do what to tackle the problem.”

More widely, she said it was shocking that some companies today still think sexual harassment is a human resources issue. “Sexual discrimination is a human rights issue and sexual violence against women is directly related to human rights.”

Flavia Amoding from Women Working Worldwide spoke about tackling sexual harassment on flower farms in Uganda where, like in Kenya, a culture of sexual harassment was entrenched on flower farms. “We formed a union that could fight for the rights of workers, formed women worker committees, and told women how they should tackle cases of sexual harassment.”

Tackling the problem

The panel heard that the problem in both countries was tackled by multiple changes across the supply chain involving buyers, civil society, NGOs, trade unions and government.

In particular improved government legislation played a key role, as did more women becoming supervisors on the farms and more women having permanent contracts so that they didn’t fear losing their jobs if they spoke out.

The business benefits of the changes soon became clear. Enhancing the rights of a largely female workforce led to lower labour turnover, more committed skilled workers, higher productivity and quality.

Said Prof Barrientos: “All actors, both global and local, both companies and governments, have a role to play. When you get everyone working together you begin to get a shift, but it doesn’t eliminate the problem overnight.”

Living wages

For instance she added that the issue of paying living wages across global supply chains remained an unresolved one.

“It is only once women are no longer treated as cheap labour and paid a living wage that they are more likely to be treated with respect. A culture shift is still needed to really address these issues in the long run.”