Standing workers conduct final inspection of garments in Indonesia. © Better Work
When Sudarmi became chief supervisor at a garment factory in West Java, Indonesia, she had already anticipated many of the pressures she would face: long hours, physical and mental fatigue, and the stress of dealing with surges of demand to meet buyer targets. But some of the challenges—and her reaction to them—surprised her. “I didn’t know how to communicate effectively with my subordinates, let alone inspire them. I sometimes became very aggressive and upset when I faced problems at work.”
In the garment industry it is not uncommon for capable people like Sudarmi to be promoted to positions of authority with very little preparation or training. This can lead to conflict and stress, and even hamper a potential growth in productivity. The Better Work program, a unique partnership between IFC and the International Labour Organization (ILO), is changing that.
The program aims to improve working conditions and competitiveness in the garment industry. It operates in seven countries, engaging 1,300 factories with more than 1.6 million workers. In total, since 2009, more than 3 million people have benefited from the program’s offerings in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti, Jordan, Indonesia, Nicaragua, and Vietnam.
For Sudarmi, who was new to being in charge of a team, a three-day Supervisory Skills Training run by the Better Work program gave her the knowledge and the tools necessary for her new role. It educated her and her fellow participants on how to manage their responsibilities, follow professional standards, and respect workers’ rights. Hands-on exercises, individual reflection, and group discussions reinforced lectures.
In the last two years more than 5,800 supervisors across seven garment manufacturing countries have taken part in this interactive training. Results are clear: Supervisory Skills Training, particularly among female supervisors, has increased productivity by 22 percent, while it has also helped reduce employee turnover. Overall, factories with supervisors in the program have steadily improved compliance with ILO core labor standards and national legislation covering compensation, contracts, occupational safety, and health, and working time.
A recent independent study conducted by Tufts University shows that Better Work has generated significant gains in productivity, improvements in quality of life, and better health outcomes for program participants and their family members. The findings of this five-year study are based on 17,000 survey responses from workers and managers in factories in Haiti, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Jordan.
The study proves the link between better working conditions and higher profit margins by showing that factories participating in the program experienced a rise in profitability (measured as the ratio of total revenue versus total costs). In Vietnam, for example, factories that Better Work had advised increased their profitability by 25 percent within four years.
Positive results reverberated into the family and community, as well. For instance, workers in factories in Vietnam were better able to fund schooling for their daughters after their factory participated in the Better Work program for one year. Similar patterns were observed for workers’ sons in Indonesia.
The study tracked many other indirect impacts for communities and families, especially in the realm of healthcare. Better Work programs in Haiti, Jordan, and Vietnam all helped to expand access to pregnancy-related healthcare. Additionally, where parents (particularly mothers) achieved better working hours and pay, their children’s health also improved. In Vietnam, Better Work significantly reduced excessive hours and increased pay (particularly for women) by ensuring compliance with minimum wage regulations, which has had a positive indirect effect on child health.
Sudarmi explains the difference that Better Work made in her life in much more personal terms: “I used to be less sensitive to the problems [my workers] encountered,” she says, describing how talking to her workers led her to create a new class for those who needed to improve their sewing skills. “Through the training, I came to an awareness about the importance of communication in achieving success.”
To learn more about IFC’s work in manufacturing, visit: www.ifc.org/manufacturing
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Published in October 2016