International Women’s Day: a story of collective power -

International Women’s Day: a story of collective power

  • Published on
    March 6, 2023
  • Written by:
    Miriam Karmali
  • Category:
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 Are you planning on marking International Women’s Day? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments! 


When 15,000 women, the majority being immigrant Jewish garment workers, marched through New York City in 1908, they sparked the call for an annual observance of International Women’s Day.  

These women in New York were demanding the right to vote, better working conditions, shorter working hours, and better protections from exploitation through the initiation of the first labor unions. 

More than 100 years later we remember that International Women’s Day is ultimately a story of collective power, of what can be achieved when people unite and demand that societal structures work in the favor of human progress and the realization of greater freedom, rather than in the service of greed and expanding profits. 

Women around the world today continue to organize against the systems that perpetuate modern slavery, from businesses shirking their responsibilities to exploited workers in their supply chains to weak legislation that leaves women migrating across borders at greater risk of trafficking and abuse. 

With an estimated 50 million people in modern slavery, over half of these women and girls, the challenges facing women are immense. But the struggle for women, and by women, to be free from exploitation remains strong, embodied by activists around the world. 

Gender and modern slavery

According to the latest Global Modern Slavery Estimates published in 2022 by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Walk Free, an estimated 50 million people were living in modern slavery in 2021, either subjected to forced labor including sexual exploitation or in a forced marriage. 54% of these were women and girls.

Structural inequalities and gender-based violence contribute to a higher prevalence of modern slavery amongst women and girls according to modern slavery statistics. This is particularly true within forms of labor stereotyped as “women’s work”. 

Discrimination and marginalization make it more difficult for women to access their rights and fight for justice. At the intersection of marginalized identities including race, migration status, indigenous identities, living with a disability, and gender and sexual identities, women become even more vulnerable to exploitation. 

Learn about how women are made more vulnerable to modern slavery in certain labor sectors, and what changes they’re calling for, in our snapshots below. 

Domestic work

Of the estimated 75 million domestic workers around the world, the vast majority – 76% – are women. Being informally employed and therefore excluded from social and labor protections is common in domestic work, increasing domestic workers’ vulnerability to modern slavery. 

Domestic work is a part of all our lives. Domestic work is childcare, cleaning, looking after the elderly, providing care for those who are ill, cooking, and maintaining a home. Domestic work is difficult, requires long hours, and is often undervalued and underpaid – and it is absolutely essential to keep our societies running. If all domestic workers worked in one country, this country would be the tenth-largest employer worldwide. 

Combined with the isolated nature of domestic work that often takes place in private households behind closed doors, workers are at heightened risk of exploitation, trafficking, and abuse. Many domestic workers are women who belong to marginalized, racialized, and migrant communities. Those who are migrant workers are also subject to restrictive immigration requirements around the world that tie their immigration status to their employers, driving a power imbalance that perpetuates conditions of exploitation.  

Lucy Turay, a former domestic worker in Lebanon and founder of the Domestic Worker Advocacy Network based in Sierra Leone, is calling on Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour to end the exploitative kafala sponsorship system and ratify the Domestic Workers Convention to ensure domestic workers are better protected from forced labor, trafficking, and abuse. 

Over 89,000 in the Freedom United community are bolstering the call from domestic workers on governments around the world to ratify C189 and better protect domestic workers from exploitation. 


Take action now: 

Sign the petition calling on governments to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention 

Sign the open letter to Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour 

Sex work

Sex work describes an informed transaction between consenting adults engaging in sexual activities. Like in other labor sectors where modern slavery occurs, commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor in the sex industry happen when coercion, threat, and manipulation are present. 

The majority of the world’s sex workers are women, often excluded from the protection of national labor laws as sex work is either partially or fully criminalized in most countries. Harmful laws that deny sex workers protections under labor laws prevent them from being able to work safely, increasing the risk of violence and exploitation and preventing those trafficked into the industry from seeking support from authorities due to the risk of arrest and detention. 

Out of the estimated 6.3 million people around the world experiencing commercial sexual exploitation, 80% of these are women. Policy responses that prevent trafficking for sexual exploitation and support trafficking victims, rather than penalizing perpetrators after the event, are necessary to build resilience to this type of trafficking.

In India, sex workers have been protesting harmful anti-trafficking efforts and demanding their rights following a decision by India’s Supreme Court in 2022 officially defining sex work as a profession, calling for an end to police violence against sex workers, and for greater labor protections. This ruling expanded the rights of sex workers in India and is hoped to better protect sex workers from violence and exploitation, including trafficking, and is a significant achievement following years of advocacy from sex workers’ rights groups in the country. 

The Freedom United community successfully campaigned for the repeal of an archaic and harmful loitering law that targeted victims of trafficking and sex workers in California. California’s Governor Newsom signed the Safer Streets for All Act into law which went into effect in January 2023, empowering trafficking victims to seek support from authorities and enabling survivors to clear their names after acquiring criminal records. Thank you to the Freedom United community for signing the petition and calling the Governor’s office to secure this significant win which makes California a leader in supporting trafficking victims and survivors. 

Globally, non-punitive responses to sex work are critical for victims of trafficking to be empowered to seek support and secure in the knowledge that they will not be criminalized and punished for their experiences.  

 Learn more about sex work and trafficking.

Garment workers

Gender-based violence is a key element of the exploitation of women garment workers, predominantly in the Global South, involved in mass outsourced clothing production.  Despite promises from global brands to improve conditions for workers in their supply chains, these women have been largely failed by the global garment industry with Asia Floor Wage Alliance even coining the term the “Garment Industrial Trauma Complex” to describe the endemic violence and exploitation of women garment workers.

The vast majority of garment workers around the world are women often working under punishing conditions for little pay, experiencing wage theft, and physical and sexual abuse. 

The Clean Clothes Campaign explains how gender discrimination in garment-producing countries can make women more exploitable by reducing their employment options: 

 “Productive, reproductive and domestic responsibilities such as cleaning, cooking and childcare constrain women’s ability to seek other types of employments”.

Women are often restricted to the lowest-paid jobs in the garment sector such as weaving and sewing. In Asia and the Pacific, a region accounting for over half of the world’s textiles and garment exports, unpaid care work is cited by the ILO as the most significant barrier to women’s ability to progress in the workplace, limiting women’s time to access education and training for more secure jobs and preventing women’s participation in collective bargaining structures to negotiate for more robust protections against exploitation.

Women are also subject to increased precarity in the workplace due to the proliferation of short-term and informal work contracts in the garment industry. Under these contracts, women are excluded from social protections and the lack of a safety net increases their exploitability.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 had a devastating effect on the conditions of garment workers predominantly in the Global South. Research by the University of Sheffield and the Worker Rights Consortium found that the risk of forced labor and vulnerability to exploitation increased for workers interviewed in Myanmar, Honduras, India, and Ethiopia.  Global fashion brands canceled major orders with suppliers resulting in workers experiencing conditions including “verbal abuse; physical abuse; threats and/or intimidation; false promises from employers; gender-based and sexual harassment; violations of workers’ freedom of association rights”.

But women’s garment worker unions are fighting back. In a win for women garment workers’ rights, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) lifted an import ban on Indian garment maker Natchi Apparel in 2022. CBP recognized that forced labor indicators in the factory had been remedied under the Dindigul Agreement pushed forward by the Dalit and women-led Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union – a set of brand agreements to end gender-based violence, harassment & other forced labor indicators. 

Agriculture workers

Women make up around 43% of the agricultural labor force but less than a fifth of the world’s landholders.

In her 2022 report ‘Trafficking in persons in the agriculture sector’, the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons Siobhán Mullally notes that the risk of trafficking and exploitation facing women in agriculture increases due to “gender inequality in the security of land tenure and control over natural resources, reinforcing disadvantages faced by women”.

This is further exacerbated in seasonal agricultural work carried out by migrant women who are deemed to be more exploitable by unscrupulous employers. They can take advantage of workers’ isolation knowing that workers are less likely to report exploitation as they are likely to return to their country of origin and may be restricted by visa requirements tying them to a single employer. Women workers are also more vulnerable to physical and sexual harassment. 

In Kenya, women on tea plantations supplying tea to some of the U.K.’s biggest brands reported in February 2023 extensive sexual harassment at the hands of plantation supervisors. Over 70 women said they had been sexually abused. Scarcity of work contributes to a power imbalance where employers can demand sex or threaten workers with termination, an impossible choice for women who need an income to survive. 

Our Executive Director, Joanna Ewart-James, told the Grocer: 

In 2018 a handful of tea brands made a good start publishing their supplier list, but more tea brands need to do likewise and regularly, particularly if they are making claims that their tea is ‘ethically sourced’. […] Then those workers and local groups with the courage to complain have somewhere to go.” 

Migrant women in Spain report similar experiences of endemic abuse and exploitation in the fields of Huelva where women are tasked with picking fruit. openDemocracy reports:

“Day labourers hired in their country of origin face all manner of abuses. Many go into debt in order to travel to Huelva and, once there, do not work or get paid for the agreed number of hours. They live in isolation on the farms themselves, several kilometres from the village, a situation which encourages abuse. Though the practice is illegal, their rent is often deducted from their pay.” 

Jornaleras en Lucha is a campaign group set up by women farmworkers to demand better protections from exploitative work practices through unionizing and grassroots campaigning. Thanks to their work in solidarity with other unions in the region, they were able to secure benefits like sick pay and back pay on unpaid wages. 

 Are you planning on marking International Women’s Day? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments! 

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Patrice Bez
Patrice Bez
1 year ago

Hi. Its vert disgrunted and im vert Schockinh. So i don t agrée with the Patriarcat misogyne.

Claudio Daniel Schwartz




Francis Sunil Rozario
Francis Sunil Rozario
1 year ago

It’s very enlightening to know the situations of women n most vulnerable of society worldwide how they r exploited sexually of otherwise. All those who want to take the concerns of women to celebrate Women’s must read this to know the network of women’s exploitation in places of work n within domestic circles. Congratulations for the write up.

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