What’s the most effective way to promote change for women working in garment factories?

by 26th Sep 2019
An EKATA group at a garment factory in Bangladesh An EKATA group at a garment factory in Bangladesh

CARE has spent more than 20 years engaging with women employed in garment factories. As with many organisations working with the garment industry, worker training is an important component of any factory engagement. However, our evidence increasingly suggests that for changes to go beyond the individual level, training alone is not enough, and we need to support and enable workers so that they can collectively take action.

This is demonstrated by a recent Outcome Harvest of the OIKKO project. OIKKO worked with women employed in garment factories in Bangladesh. CARE spent three years promoting EKATA (Empowerment, Knowledge and Transformative Action) groups in communities around garment factories. EKATA groups receive nine months of engagement on rights and life skills which support women to develop collective action plans to resolve issues affecting them.

The Outcome Harvest found clear evidence of women raising issues in their workplaces and communities to highlight factory non-compliances and to drive improvements. The focus on demand-raising based on rights demonstrates that these outcomes are significant, as workers are typically either unaware of their rights or are unwilling/unable to raise rights-based demands to their employer.

A forum for workers to collectively identify gaps in access to rights and identify actions to address these issues, combined with a safe, established space in which to organise that collective action, proved crucial for women to push for improvements.

This leads to broader benefits for the workplace. The evidence showed women were not just asking for improvements which affected them personally. The collective support offered by the EKATA group led to numerous forms of improvement.

  • Workers raising demands on their own behalf, such as a worker who claimed her 16 weeks maternity pay.
  • Workers supporting each other to raise demands for entitlements, such as EKATA members supporting one of their fellow members to apply for sick leave which had previously been denied.
  • Workers raising demands on behalf of other individuals, such as an EKATA leader insisting that action be taken against a supervisor that was abusing a worker and EKATA members approaching management about the case of a worker who was sacked whilst on maternity leave.
  • Workers raising demands on behalf of a large group of workers in the factory such as a worker demanding the factory raise salaries to the legal minimum and workers requesting the factory install women-only washrooms.

These outcomes could not have been achieved by training or awareness raising. The Outcome Harvest evaluation noted this level of mutual support would have been

“less likely to happen without the collective identification of issues, action planning and peer support network fostered within EKATA. This explanation is supported by CARE’s prior experience delivering training programmes to workers on rights and life skills, which demonstrated that individual training approach can support individuals to make better informed decisions and raise demands individually on their own behalf; but is very unlikely to facilitate collective action on a broader scope of rights-based demands.”

Crucially, the scope of actions taken by workers, and the access to rights and entitlements gained, are far beyond the more limited outcomes seen from training or awareness raising activities. This suggests a need to move past the traditional training models and place more focus on models such as EKATA as a more effective way to promote access to workers’ rights.

Jenny Conrad

I coordinate communications for CARE's Made by Women strategy, which promotes dignified work for women in the garment industry. I joined CARE in 2013 as Communications Advisor for the Cambodia office. During my time with CARE I have supported CARE Cambodia’s private sector engagement with a focus on the garment industry and led strategic communications for CARE Australia's International Programmes team.

Having started my career in marketing, prior to joining CARE I was leading communications for a global philanthropy publication. I hold a BA in English from the University of Bristol.

Email: jenny.conrad@careint.org

Twitter: @jennyeconrad