How improving garment workers’ jobs leads to better development

8 December 2015
ITC News
Upholding compliance with labour standards in the garment industry means safer and better jobs, writes Dan Rees.

The global garment industry is a key source of employment, income and growth for developing countries, especially in Asia. However, events like the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh exposed the sector’s challenges in a dramatic way. Improving safety and working conditions for garment workers has become a top priority.

At the core of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) mandate is setting international labour standards to be ratified into law and enforced by member states in every corner of the world. Better Work, a joint programme of the ILO and the International Finance Corporation, is driving policy- level change in the apparel and footwear sector and directly monitoring compliance in more than a thousand garment factories, including in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Better Work shines a spotlight on compliance with fundamental rights such as the elimination of forced and child labour, non-discrimination and freedom of association, as well as those linked to decent working conditions, wages, occupational safety and health, and reasonable working hours. The programme also builds the capacity of workers and managers in factories to make improvements.

Since Better Work first started conducting assessments in 2007, working conditions have steadily improved, benefiting more than 3 million workers worldwide. For example, compliance with working environment and welfare facilities indicators increased over the past year by 25% and 18% respectively in Indonesia, while in Cambodia there was a 17% rise in the number of factories regularly conducting emergency drills. In Vietnam there has been a 29% decrease in the proportion of workers who state that low wages are a concern for themselves or their peers since baseline data was first collected in 2010.

Research undertaken by Tufts University for Better Work Vietnam demonstrates a direct correlation between factory compliance and both productivity and profitability, suggesting better work means better business. A study of 185 Vietnamese factories and 5,100 workers revealed a 5.9% boost in profitability when workers perceived improvements in their conditions, including an improved sense of physical security and assurance of wage payments.

The key reason profitability increases is enhanced productivity. The research demonstrated that workers reached their daily production target nearly 40 minutes faster than their counterparts working in harsher conditions. In the highly competitive global garment industry these margins represent a significant competitive edge.

Improvements in compliance to labour standards don’t just benefit factory owners. They translate directly to worker wellbeing and can have a dramatic impact on countries’ social and economic development. The World Bank’s World Development Report on Jobs, for example, used Better Work data to show that workers in garment factories where compliance is higher reported a notably higher level of life satisfaction. A 5% improvement in overall factory compliance was also associated with a 10% increase in worker income and a 9% increase in the money that workers sent home. With a workforce that is largely female, improvements in worker income were shown to be transformative, often leading to greater investments in children’s health and education and in turn to faster and more sustainable development.

Upholding compliance with labour standards in the garment industry means safer and better jobs for millions of poor and vulnerable people. It also makes sound business sense, promoting job growth, economic and social development.