Women Leading Change: From Forced Labor to Freedom of Association

Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum
3 min readNov 9, 2021

November 8, 2021

In 2021, in the second year of the pandemic, our reliance on global supply chains and global labor migration corridors for our food, consumer goods, and services is clearer than it has ever been.

In fact, the New York Times has now labeled the Covid19 pandemic “the great supply chain disruption” and almost daily there are newspaper articles with titles including “Supply Chain Shortages: Your Questions Answered,” “Markets Work, but Untangling Global Supply Chains” and “How Supply Chains Will Impact Holiday Shopping.”

This focus on logistics leaves the worker perspective out of what may be more accurately called transnational global production networks. It erases the workers who create components, assemble them, and move them around the network and across borders. And it obscures how the structure of the business model itself creates extreme downward pressure on wages and working conditions.

A spectrum of abuse from wage theft to forced labor is not a surprise, it should be expected. Even when their work isn’t featured in global and U.S. media workers and their unions are responding to these structural pressures through organizing, union building, and transnational bargaining models along with where more research, analysis, and regulation is needed. And in many cases women are leading these collective demands and actions towards a more equitable economy.

While data is hard to pin down, the International Labor Organization estimates that in 2016, 24.9 million people were subjected to forced labor with women and girls accounting for 60%. The private sector’s use of this forced labor generates more than 150 billion USD per year in illegal profits.

Moreover, global supply chain business models are often configured to profit from women’s unequal position within the workplace and society more broadly.

(For model research in how this works in cocoa supply chains read here.)

Women workers in many sectors experience lower wages, less stable employment, and barriers to access to justice and remedy. Gender norms in work and the division of labor which channels women into or excludes them from specific jobs also often has the impact of restricting women to hidden and uncompensated tasks. And at their base global supply chains often rely on casualized, informalized, and non-waged forms of labor, to which households make gendered contributions.

For our 2021 event honoring labor rights defenders, Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum facilitated a roundtable titled Women Leading Change: From Forced Labor to Freedom of Association featuring Julie Su, Deputy Secretary of Labor of the United States Department of Labor; Ma Moe Sandar Myint, Chairwoman of the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar (FGWM); Allison Lee (Lee Li Hua), Secretary General of Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union (YMFU); Roza Agaydarova, Founder of Adolat Sari Olg’a (Onward Toward Justice); and Iris Munguía, Secretaria de la Mujer (Secretary of Women) of Federación Sindical Agrícola (Federation of Industrial Agriculture Unions).

The roundtable discussion highlighted how even in sectors which have historically relied on forced labor, women labor leaders are building strong unions that are leading collective demands for:

· Elimination of gender-based violence and harassment at work building off the concepts and principles embodied in ILO Convention 190;

· Pay equity;

· Broader women’s leadership in the workplace and in the labor movement at all levels; and

· Protection for freedom of association and collective bargaining making it accessible to all workers.

The roundtable also highlighted how women’s leadership often visibilizes otherwise invisible work on the job, in unions, and in families and communities; helps overcome traditional divisions among workers which employers too often exploit; and benefits both men and women workers in the long run.

At GLJ-ILRF, we will continue to support women labor leaders on the front lines demanding corporate, investor, and state accountability for workers in the global economy through an integrated strategy of support for organizing and bargaining, research and policy, and elevating women’s voice and experience. And we applaud the Biden Administration’s commitment to policies that advance freedom of association and collective bargaining and gender equity and equality in the United States and around the world through the work of the U.S. Department of Labor and sister agencies.



Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum

Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum is the Executive Director of the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum and a lecturer at Harvard Law School.