Workers’ Wellbeing Can Create a More Sustainable Apparel Industry — and Boost Profits

Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo credit: Jaber Al Nahian
The collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed more than 1,100 garment workers.

By Susan Pick

The Rana Plaza collapse was a tragic reminder of the consequences of the fashion industry’s “race to the bottom.” The past decade has seen more garment manufacturing move to countries like Bangladesh and China, where fewer labor standards mean increased margins for businesses, but also the prevalence of child labor, life-threatening working conditions and poverty-level wages.

However, workers’ wellbeing doesn’t have to be at odds with profitability. In fact, workers enabled with life skills are more productive at work, make fewer mistakes and have lower rates of absenteeism. Moreover, investing in workers’ wellbeing unlocks multiple societal benefits and would be a key step toward reversing the garment industry’s humanitarian crisis

Henry Ford was one of the first business leaders who promoted workers’ wellbeing — for business reasons. Worker absences and turnovers were causing increased costs and delayed production of the Model T and had seriously affected the business’s bottom line. Developing countries that are seeking to regain their manufacturing competitiveness don’t have to join the race to the bottom — instead, they can apply Ford’s forgotten lesson: Workers’ wellbeing equals productivity.

For example, Mexico, once the top exporter of apparel to the U.S. due to NAFTA, has the opportunity to “claw back” its competitiveness through high-quality textile markets (like medical textiles and protective apparel) which require innovation and a skilled, productive workforce. However, compared to other countries, Mexico works the most hours (2,237 hours per year) and yet, it is the least productive and is No. 1 in absenteeism. In 2014, unplanned absences cost Mexican companies 31.4 percent in productivity losses.

At Yo Quiero Yo Puedo (IMIFAP), we hear many reports from Mexican businesses of the high rotation of personnel, increasing absenteeism, low worker morale, too many mistakes along the production line, and not enough productivity. With more than 415,000 workers employed by Mexico’s textile and apparel manufacturing industries, the industry has a key opportunity to prioritize workers’ wellbeing as a sustainable solution to its productivity woes.

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A Mexico City garment worker at the sewing machine.

Why wellbeing is the answer

When workers feel well with themselves and with their work, and when they’re empowered to become leaders of their own lives, they become motivated to innovate and be creative. If workers are enabled with the knowledge to develop their emotional and cognitive social skills — whether through a focus on health, education, citizenship or work — they not only experience life benefits, but they also become active contributors to their work environments.

For example, when garment workers learn about taking charge of their own health, their reproductive rights or mental health, their personal and work lives both improve. If they have access to education on civic participation or making financial goals, they become equipped with personal agency, teamwork and leadership skills. All of these benefits lead to greater productivity and reduced costs for businesses.

What we’ve seen in the field

A few years ago, Ileana López, head of sustainability at the C&A Foundation in Mexico, contacted me to see if Yo Quiero Yo Puedo would be willing to test its life-skills and personal-agency programs with seamstresses in a dress factory. My response was a whole-hearted “yes,” in part because I have a personal connection to garment manufacturing.

When my mother first arrived in Mexico during the Second World War, she was a Jewish refugee from Stuttgart, Germany. She first made a living as a seamstress, fixing clothes for rich women.  After a few years, that effort became a dress factory, where my mother directed the design and manufacturing, while my father managed its administration and finances. As kids, my sister and I helped during some afternoons and weekends, making buttons and buckles, or cutting off lose threads and tagging the clothes. As the daughters of seamstresses, we were, at times, shunned at school, subject to a stereotype that says low-wage workers are incompetent, the furthest from being leaders in their own lives.

A garment worker at Morelos, Mexico, ironing at preparing final products before delivery. Photo by Erick Astudillo for Fundación C&A
A garment worker at Morelos, Mexico, ironing at preparing final products before delivery. 

With the support of the C&A Foundation, Yo Quiero Yo Puedo designed and launched the program: “Yo quiero, yo puedo … cuidarme y ser productive” (I want to, I can …take care of myself and be productive.”) Fifteen companies have participated to date. Supervisors undergo 40 hours of life skills and knowledge facilitation, and the supervisors in turn replicate the program during 15 minutes a week with their seamstresses. More than 1,200 supervisors and workers have participated.

The program has made a statistically (and humanly) significant difference in work satisfaction and productivity. Participating companies report that satisfaction within the workplace has increased by 37.5 percent, and the number of supervisors who state they have a better personal-work life balance tripled. Absenteeism was reduced by 25 percent, and the number of pieces produced with mistakes was reduced by 60 percent. In less than 1,500 minutes of interaction, factories improved their efficiency and workers found their power.

Workers’ wellbeing catalyzes widespread benefits

The tremendous impact of enabling workers’ wellbeing isn’t just limited to the workplace. When people are empowered to direct their own lives and act as agents of change, they recognize that they have greater rights and more possibilities. Improving workers’ wellbeing is not transactional (e.g., giving people money, gifts, clothes). It’s intrinsic empowerment.

Yo Quiero, Yo Puedo participants have gone on to establish community support groups. Women have started community banks, and adolescents have created dating violence awareness programs for their peers. This demonstrates how not just individuals, but also an entire citizenry can become empowered to change lives for the better, if they have access to education and tools that unlock wellbeing.

Image credits: 1) Jaber Al Nahian 2) and 3) Erick Astudillo for Fundación C&A

Susan Pick is an Ashoka Fellow and the founder and president of Yo Quiero Yo Puedo (IMIFAP), whose education, health, citizenship and productivity programs have helped enable more than 20 million individuals in 14 countries to develop their full potential. Pick is also the author of Breaking the Poverty Cycle and a thought leader for Fabric of Change, a challenge that will award more than €100,000 to solutions for building a fair and sustainable apparel industry.

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