When the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory took the lives of more than 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh last year, the world’s eyes were fixed on what multinational apparel companies would do to ensure that a similar tragedy would not reoccur.
In the wake of the calamity, agreements to improve factory working conditions – such as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the corporate-led initiative the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety – were created, building retrofits and renovations were jump-started, and reparations were made. Notwithstanding the progress that Western companies, labor unions and local government continue to make to secure safe working conditions Bangladesh, several social enterprises are helping to advance the sustainability of the global apparel supply chain beyond safety compliance and toward a considered focus on business ROI and social impact.
The multi-trillion dollar global apparel industry – of which Bangladesh is the second largest garment exporter (after China) – employs about 25 million garment factory workers, 80 percent of which are women. Historically, the conditions at a factory such as Rana Plaza have been less than ideal: Workers endure low wages, long hours and unexpected changes in daily schedules. Even more, in most societies that are home to low-wage garment factories, workers are culturally discouraged to complain when working conditions are trying – especially if you are a woman. Unfortunately, those cultural barriers and lack of communication channels have often been costly for factories. (Evidence suggests that Rana Plaza could have been avoided if factory management had listened to worker concerns.)
Organizations such as LaborVoices work to prevent just that. Using basic mobile phone technology, LaborVoices provides a platform for garment factory workers from various countries (as well as workers in other industries) to provide real-time feedback about working conditions at specific sites: Employees can call or text a dedicated line 24/7, free of charge, to anonymously complete a brief survey and also have the option to leave a voice recording with anecdotal feedback. This valuable information is then shared with apparel brands and factory management to help them solve problems in their supply chain before they become bigger issues.
LaborVoices not only gives workers a voice, literally, and supports supply chain transparency – it’s also a useful business tool.
“We’re solving the worker’s problems, and by solving the worker’s problems we’re saving brands a lot of money,” said Ayush Khanna, product manager at LaborVoices. “At the end of the day, brands need to not only do this out of the kindness of their hearts, but [they] should be doing this because this is actually good for business. It means having less uncertainty, more visibility and more capability to correct issues before they get super critical.”
In one major garment factory in Bangladesh, for example, LaborVoices received more than 600 calls from about 200 workers during a two-week period. While the collective feedback confirmed that workers were being paid on time, some workers also shared that access to drinking water was not available during certain times of the day and that some workers noticed cracks along the walls and roof of the building. LaborVoices shared this anonymous feedback with factory management and was able to drive the following improvements for workers: Management refurbished the pumps used to supply water to the factory, thereby improving the water supply, and engaged engineers to survey the building to ensure structural safety.
This ongoing visibility into factory operations helps reduce the risk of supply chain disruptions – all of which mean dollars and cents for factory owners and client brands.
BSR's HERproject approaches worker well-being from a similar lens. In partnership with NGOs and global brands, HERproject implements women’s empowerment programs focused on women’s health and financial literacy in garment factories around the world, as well as farms and other types of factories. The two programs, called HERhealth and HERfinance, provide factory workers with opportunities to learn about general and reproductive health and financial capabilities – and also help female workers gain a healthy dose of pride, confidence and leadership skills in societies where women have long been denied important information and services.
Teaching women how to manage their money and understand their bodies not only improves their lives, families and local communities – it also has a positive impact on business.
“The disempowerment of women in a lot of countries is such that it’s often linked to issues that can destabilize a company’s supply chain, whether [they] know it or not,” said Racheal Meiers, director of BSR and HERproject lead.
“When companies address issues like financial literacy, and menstruation and sanitation, which reduce poverty and increase worker’s health, it’s ultimately good for business because it reduces risks and costs. It’s a lost opportunity for companies if they don’t see those issues. Rana Plaza showed us that basic compliance is not going to be enough.”
Beyond compliance, HERproject programs benefit businesses by reducing health-related absenteeism and improving employee engagement, retention and productivity.
Since the launch of the initiative in 2007, HERproject programs have reached more than 250,000 women and the program continues to expand its reach through its corporate partnerships. HERproject participant Ann Inc., for example, has adapted the initiative and developed a full-scale version that promises to empower 100,000 women who work in factories along its supply chain. Through its program, Ann Inc. hopes to give women the opportunity to reach their full potential; certainly the company recognizes that supporting women workers benefits their bottom line, too.
Whether it’s advocating for the well-being of garment factory workers, or providing a forum where workers can voice their concerns, Labor Voices' and HERproject's initiatives demonstrate that promoting responsible sourcing is not only the right thing to do – it’s also good for business.
Image courtesy of LaborVoices
Nayelli is the Founder & CEO of CreatorsCircle, a resource hub that connects diverse youth with opportunities to create a life of purpose and impact. A trained journalist with an MBA, she also keeps the pulse on sustainable business and social impact trends and has covered these topics for a variety of publications over the past 15 years. She’s a systems thinker who loves to learn, share knowledge and help others connect the dots.