Whoah, the past 7 months of coordinating this social compliance evaluation project with our research team I have gained an infinite amount of lifetime lessons. Time has flown by, and this is the first time in months that I’ve found the time to sit down and reflect on what’s happened.
We have now gone through the first three training session of training female line operators to become supervisors, and so far 160 factory operators have been trained in our training centres and returned to their factories with supervisor certificates. Going to the certificate-giving ceremonies was an unforgettable experience. The workers who we saw in the beginning of the training session sitting all shy and quiet by the tables in the training class rooms were now unrecognizable, coming up confidently with big smiles to greet my teammates and I with hugs and ‘thank you’, and scoring 90 % or above in the final training exams. That experience made it all worth it and reminded me why it is we’re doing this!
Now the big beast of a task to deal with is monitoring and evaluating what the real impact of our training will actually be on these female workers’ lives, both on the factory production lines and in their homes. Will they be promoted to supervisors once they return to their factories? Will they receive a salary increase? Or will their factory managers simply collect their certificates and hide them away in the drawer in his office desk and doom them to the same life-long never-changing work as sewing operators..? The important task for us will be to convince these managers that their newly trained workers will boost their factories’ line productivity, their workers efficiency, and improve the quality of their products due to the improved communication between operators and supervisors with higher supervision skills by our female trainees. We need to prove that our training has a positive impact on the factories (not tjust he workers lives, rights, welfare), and that this is also a way to improve relations with buyers. This we hope to be able to measure in the linewise production and quality inspection reports we collect from the factories production reports where we can monitor the changes on the lines where our trainees have been promoted as supervisors.
Further, our follow-up evaluation surveys with the trained workers will show if they have been promoted and received salary-increases. So far, we are only just in the middle of conducting this survey in the factories who participated in our first round of training, so there is not much to report as of yet. But the feedback we have received so far is that all factories have stated that they either have already promoted or are planning to promote the trained operators to supervisors. Yet, the reliability of these surveys done in the factories with workers and their managers is always dubious, and when loud music is put on as we enter the factory premises as a warning alert to the workers to “perform social compliance” on the lines for us, it is hard to expect that the managers or even the authority-obedient workers themselves will tell us the truth about what actually happens on the factory lines. Yet to get a clearer picture of the impact, prior to this survey done in the factories a month after the end of training, the trainers we work with also call up each trainee everyday on their mobile phones a month following the end of the training session to check up on how the workers are doing back in the factories and if they have been promoted or not. On top of this, we aim to do a household survey with the trained workers starting this winter where we will interview the workers and their spouses in their homes to evaluate the impact of our training and the workers promotion to supervisors on the intra-household income allocation, as well as the gendered distribution of financial control/responsibility, as well as domestic chores, and overall empowerment in the households. The latter, is a research survey I’m currently just starting to develop and to assess the feasibility of.
One big issue to ensure a positive impact of our training is to have a thorough selection of workers to participate. So far there has been a huge variety in how the factory managers select their workers for training. At each selection test we carry out in the factories, we do a survey with the Floor in Charge to find out how he has selected the female operators for our test and if the selection was difficult. From this it’s clear that some factories spend maybe 20 min to randomly pick out a group of women from their production floor without giving them any information about our training program and without ensuring that the women are motivated and have the level of education/skills to become supervisors from our training. Thus, the women we receive for the test end up being illiterate, nervous, and with no ambition to strive to get promoted as supervisors after 6 weeks of training when they now they can gain bonus salary money from during overtime nightshifts at the factories and thus get extra money to meet their daily household living costs. Thus in these cases of poor and disorganised selection of workers for our training by some of the less compliant factories, it seems that their real aim of joining our program is simply to get a certificates (from an international organisation) that they can show off to buyers, not to provide opportunities for their workers. Thus workers sent to our training from such factories have tended to drop-out of training last minute, or being withdrawn by the factories midway through the training program. This is often because the factories realized they we’re having to spare them from their production lines (and with high production pressures from buyers sending short-notice shipment demands to their supplier factories every line operator’s presence is crucial). This makes me feel the need to sit on my hand to stop yourself from slapping those buyers who already diplomatically stated they support our project with a nicely written endorsement letter, when they in turn do not accommodate their enormous export shipment demands to their supplier factories according to our training program for their supplier workers.
On top of the buyer-induced barriers, there is the deep long sigh after a compliance manager tells you one of his very keen and skilled female operators won’t be able to continue our supervisor training session after all, after we had done the preparatory test and interview survey with her, simply because her husband won’t allow her to leave the village area surrounding the factory. Our team has discovered how logistically difficult it is to motivate female workers, and their husbands and factory managers to accept even just a seemingly simple issue of arranging the transportation of the factory workers to the training centres for only a 20 km distance. The majority of factory workers live in surrounding villages near their factories, and female workers often feel too scared to go alone on public transportation due to the huge amount of sexual harassment that happens on those busrides. Thus we have now agreed to let one male worker from each factory participate as well to make this less of an issue for the women and their husbands. In general, getting the permission from husbands to let their wives join our training is a huge issue. In an attempt to deal with it we now introduced a new system where we ask the factory management staff to collect signed approvals from the workers’ spouses as a part of the pre-selection produces in factories. Let’s see how this will make the selection procedures of getting motivated female workers for training smoother.
Of course a main barrier for our project is still the interest and willingness to cooperate of the factory managemers, who in turn have the pressure to keep up relations with buyers as a top priority. There’s a big sense of skepticism amongst Production Mangers in factories, and recently one manager accused us of collaborating with CIA for the data we ask to collect from them, and the survey interviews we conduct. Others have been worried we actually were planning to steal their workers and send them to China, as Bangladesh has become China’s main competitior of cheaply produced ready made garments. As I’ve documented in my previous notes, having these meeting with male factory managers is particularly challenging as a white woman, and a professional gesture of handing someone your business card automatically triggers off a chain of late-night inappropriate phonecalls, constant text messages with compliments, love-poems or dinner invitations, and until I discovered the magic trick of name/email-search security settings i would also receive a ton of facebook requests with sleazy messages attached. The issue of giving out business cards is indeed one of the biggest career barriers for Bangladeshi business women, and they have to take on heaps of security/protection measures for that same reason. Through our management surveys we are also increasingly learning more about the attitudes of HR/Production Managers towards their workers and especially their female workers. However, there’s a still a lot of performance covering up the reality. Extract from recent interview with HR Manager:
Me: “So would you consider that male workers generally have more authority and control than female workers on the production floors?”
HR Manager: “Noooo, in this factory women and men are equals! We don’t make any difference there.”
Me: “So how come at the moment you don’t have any female supervisors in your factory?”
Hr Manager: “Because the women don’t want to become promoted. They know it’s a man’s job, they simply lack the authority and their minds are so distracted by constantly thinking about how their kids are doing and what food they will cook for their husbands tonight”
There are an infinite amount of layers to fight through, and the more stumping blocks that appear en route the harder it gets to blame different actors. Who is to blame and whose mindsets are to be changed to improve the conditions for the garments workers in Bangladesh? The husbands of female garment workers who need to take over some of the domestic chore burdens and let their wives get the opportunity of promotion and salary increase that they are provided by organizations like GIZ? The female workers themselves who often emphasise this male-female power relation as the survey games we have conducted have shown? Is it the factory Managers/owners who do not see the long-term benefits of changing the status quo on their production lines by training and promoting the female line operators? The European retail buyers who need to lower their shipment/production pressures on supplier factories to enable social compliance to improve? European consumers who need to reduce their massconsumption of cheap use-once-and-throw-out clothes? One of the most absurd sites I saw here was a very young female sewing operator in salwa-kameez and head scarf sewing together pair after pair of jeans hot pants, which will then be send en masse to London for the summer collection for hipster girls to show off on Brick Lane and later to be grobed or taken off in the dark rooms of Cafe 1001. Do we really need that many pairs of hot pants? Do we really need them at all?
Another big barrier is of course the Bangladeshi government, preventing any kinds of labour rights associations or unions from organizing and functioning. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed often diplomatically expresses sympathy for garment factory workers, but after the government agreed to raise minimum wages to 3,000 taka (a law which is rarely implemented in practice when young boys and girls are hired below the minimum working age of 14 to become ‘helpers’ on the production lines willing to work for next to nothing), she stressed that her government would not tolerate any more worker protests. Workers are injured, harrassed and killed on a daily basis on their way to work going by high-risk low-safety buses through the mad factory high-ways. On my way to factories I often pass by burning buses set on fire by protesting garment workers after their fellow workers have been killed in the traffic, knowing their families will receive no recognition or compensation.
Notably, the only labour activist leader, Aminul Islam, has been arrested several times and was murdered recently, presumable by th police or intelligence services from orders by the government, for his role in protests against low wages in Bangladesh’s garment industry. This marked yet another morbid turn in the tense relations between labor groups, on one side, and on the other Bangladesh’s extensive Western company-led garment industry. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/10/world/asia/bangladeshi-labor-organizer-is-found-killed.html?_r=1
Ironically and sadly, the only measurement the government has rigorously implemented is the industrial police force, who beats up and terrorizes the garment workers to preempt any attempts at strikes, uprisings or hartals: http://libcom.org/news/policemans-new-clothes-new-styles-repression-bangladeshi-garment-industry-12012012. Yet, a further problematic issue with the hartals/strikes is that even when they do happen, they are a genuine platform for workers to make themselves heard and demand their rights as they only manage to take place when the opposition party bribes the factory workers, slum-dwellers and other people at the bottom of society to jeopardize their already unstable ways of making a living by abandoning their jobs as factory workers, tea-sellers, rickshaw pullers, cng drivers, for several days to go out and burn cars and throw with bricks/bombs to threaten the current government and put them in a bad light. Everything is corrupt and political, nothing is a genuine cry for democracy. Nothing is gained, except further political rivalry and political counterstrikes at further expense of the people.
On a lighter note, there are also a handful of inspiring encounters who make up for the dark reality, such as visiting the PINK-coloured factory where all line supervisors were female and their female compliance manager is a woman who used to work for ILO where she implemented the 14 year old minimum age law in Bangladesh! People like her a golden to changes in the garment industry, especially for female workers.
I met another very inspiring women at a TEDx Dhaka conference who presented her self-founded organization Maya (named after her mother): http://www.maya.com.bd/. The aim of the organization is to distribute information and awareness about issues of maternal health and sexual harassment/violence to women and men in Bangladesh, and so far it is indeed tho only organization doing this kind of important work, as they themselves state they are the “first Bangladeshi organization aimed at empowering women”. After telling the the founder Ivy about our project she invited me to their head office, to discuss the potential of Maya collaborating with us, by contributing to our training sessions with some of their material and learnings on problems of sexual violence/harassment in work places such as factories. However, sadly, given the already very fragile nature of the relation we currently have with the factory managers we work with and the great taboo subject that is sexual violence, trying to combine the to into our project could very well risk jeopardizing the whole project, and make factories even more skeptical about letting us train, survey and promote their female workers. Our team has before been kicked out of a factory because “we were just another of those human rights controllers!”. Sigh.
Either way, it seems the complexities of our project have not demoralized me yet, as I have just agreed to extend my stay here now as Project Administrator, and will thereby get the chance to finalise our project and observe the real impacts of it. Even though what we aim do might not work out in practice as we had hoped for, and that the impact it might have is only very minor faced against an enormours and ever-expanding industry of garments factories exporting to western retail companies.. then even changing the lives and working conditions of only 5 workers from each of the 100 factories we work with seems worth it. And if we with our research evaluation will be able to prove that what we do works and has a positive impact both on workers, factories , buyers and in turn the Bangladeshi government and economy as a whole, then that should be the carrot that keeps us going!
Of course my personal agenda would be let the evidence of confident and effectively working female supervisors be a catalyst for a more overall cultural change in gender norms..
No matter what we just gotta keep up the spirit of thik ache, samosa ney, this is Bangladesh.
Author: Marie Pettersson
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.