After endless meetings with factory owners, directors and managers of all kinds – everything from spiritual preachers making broad statements that “Happiness, and power is worthless if not shared, this is why I always tell my workers that in the end I am their slave, we are interdependent so need to feel each other and show mutual recognition”, to bling-bling profit-seekers in shiny shirts, to devout older muslim brothers, and younger newly-employed workers strongly committed to workers’ rights – we have now finally reached our target of having 100 garment factories enrolled with our women’s empowerment and social compliance project by providing training to female line operators to become supervisors!
Being at this stage is a bitter-sweet symphony, and while all factory director from the participating factories have shown (or shown of) their “strong appreciation and commitment”, the danger is that most of this is pure show business. Given the complex layers of politics and corruption in the management of the garment factories a very realistic scenario could be that that the majority of factory owners will agree to join our program purely because they see it as a chance to boost their reputation by receiving a certificate and prestige from a western organization, which they can then show off to major buyers. Behind the surface they will then quickly and randomly pick 5 workers for the training, who they will most likely never promote after – wages and social compliance will remain unchanged. The supervisor roles will remain dominated by male workers who lack any kind of accountability or sense of responsibility towards the female operators below them, and thus these women are persistently exploited.
This is indeed the kind of reality shock scenario that was given to us by a very cynical Scottish female Monitoring Director from one of the factories who last-minute decided to cancel their participation in our project afterall. After having already made an agreement with the Managing Director of the factory, signed our memorandum of understanding, and finalised the selection test of the 5 workers from their factory for the training, we had our third visit to their factory to do interview survey with the workers before the start of the training session. Yet, when we arrived at the factory, the director informed us that they had just decided to drop out due to “production pressures” and “inability to spare any workers from the production lines at the moment” – thereby a whole new level of hidden layers of dishonesty was brought to the surface. Their newly employed Scottish female factory director informed us that in fact this factory already received this kind of training one year ago and now have a shiny social compliance certificate hanging on the office wall of the factory owner. Yet, the benefits of this certificate do not trickle down in any way.
NONE of the trained female operators have today been promoted to supervisors and still do exactly the same machine operator job as before – the Scottish lady took us around to show us these trainees and the work they were doing now. She had only started her job at the factory 6 weeks prior to our meeting and told us that when she asked the other directors of the factory why they didn’t have any female supervisors, their simply response was that these women’s husbands would never allow them a job position with so much responsibility as it would negatively affect their family role and domestic responsibilities as a mother and wife - the universally well-known gendered double burden of social reproduction and gender roles more broadly. Some of the trainees had even left the factory since then – probably due to frustration with the lack of commitment of the factory to promote them after training them. Thus, while the Scottish Director was indeed very committed to our project, she admitted that it simply wasn’t realistic to implement such an idealistic social change in this cultural environment – and she was generally very skeptical that our project would have any real effect in any of the participating garment factories.
Despite this blow to my confidence in the project, however, I regained some of my initial positivism today which was the start date for our training session for female workers from the first 12 garment factories. We welcomed them all this morning arriving to the training centres with big smiles, giggles and nervous excitement. I sat in one of the classrooms to attend the first few hours of one of the training sessions and it really warmed me to see how engaged and dedicated the workers seemed about the teaching! That definitely restored my faith to some extent. It is clear that there will be a big work effort from our side to ensure that the factories keep their promise and commitment to promote the trained operators once they return to the factories and to do a lot of follow-up monitoring and evaluation the following year to make sure there is an impact of the training on workers’ welfare and labour conditions. But either way, providing these female operators with the opportunity to be taking out of their factory production floors and into a training class room with trainers who listen to them and show willingness to develop their skills and knowledge, is already an important way to give these women the motivation and life energy to keep moving up in life and progressing – to not accept status quo and the social reality of exploitation they might feel stuck in.
Every single step forward seems to in reality means a thousand steps back, in trying to implement change in the garment industry – but we gotta keep walking.
Marie is currently investigating the social labour conditions of women working in garment factories in Bangladesh. She recently completed an Msc in Development, Gender and Globalisation at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She combined her Masters studies with working part-time as a Fundraising Researcher for the Philanthropy and Programme Funding Team at Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO).
Marie has experience with bi- and multilateral development cooperation through working with the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD in Paris, focusing on the implications of the global economic downturn on the world’s poorest. Whilst working there, she was responsible for covering the work of the Danish Delegation in the DAC Network on Gender Equality, particularly focusing on gender issues related the contexts of war and conflict, as well as gender and development issues more broadly.
Whilst studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Warwick University, Marie was talks organizer for the Warwick International Development Summit and Research Officer for Warwick Amnesty International. She also worked as a volunteer at the local Refugee Centre in Coventry. During her second year, Marie received a grant from the Warwick Lord Rootes Fund to go to India to do voluntary work at the NGO Asha, a charity working in Delhi’s worst slum areas. She also received the Warwick Global Advantage Award for joining the delegation from the Cope Pink Women and Peace Organisation that went to Gaza in December 2009 to volunteer at a Palestinian Women’s Rights Centre and a Palestine Trauma Centre.