Bangladesh was identified by WHO as one of the 25 most vulnerable countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with a high population density, poor infrastructure, weak health systems and low awareness of basic preventive measures. The Ready-Made Garment (RMG) sector is one of the largest contributors to the country’s GDP and the local and global effects of the pandemic had a great impact on textile workers within the garment industry.
H&M Foundation donated a total of 18 million SEK (1.5 million USD) to WaterAid, CARE and Save the Children to provide young women, their families and community members in and around Dhaka with emergency relief. Around 100,000 women were reached with emergency relief interventions and 1 million people were reached with messages on COVID-19 and hygiene practices.
The support included:
- cash assistance for food, medication and other necessities
- health care and COVID-19 testing
- hygiene materials and handwashing facilities
- work on awareness raising
- support to families where gender-based violence increases as an effect of the crisis
- child protection and child education focusing on disadvantaged children.
From urgent needs to long-term support
The use of automation and digital technology is making its way into the textile industry, also creating a risk of unemployment for millions of Bangladeshis. Women are particularly at risk, as they represent the majority of the total workforce within the garment industry and are often employed to execute the tasks which are highly susceptible to automation. There is an urgent need to create a skilled female workforce to save jobs and create new job opportunities.
Hence, H&M Foundation is also taking a long-term approach, running over several years, to support women garment workers in this transition. We take on a holistic approach involving important players from different sectors to achieve systemic, long-lasting change. We’re also looking at all factors influencing the employability of women, and their empowerment, from the household and community level to the industry sphere.
Pilot one – Skilling Program
Our long-term commitment has been partly focusing on upskilling and training to equip female garment workers with critical skills required for managerial and sophisticated machine-operator roles. The programme has had three components: soft skill training, hard skill training and perception change. The ambition is to synchronize and integrate these three types of components to offer a holistic and unique skilling program further on.
Shimmy Technologies has been contributing with so called hard skill training. By developing video game-based skill trainings, they helped women garment workers enhance their skills to become multi-machine operators and digital design workers.
CARE has been focusing on giving soft skill training, referring to inclusive and gender responsive HR and management practices to support current and future needs of women’s career progression. Included in the soft skill training were also training on e-communication, digital skills, advanced problem-solving skills, planning and organizing skills.
Thirdly, BBC Media Action aimed to contribute with improved perceptions and reduced levels of bias among factory owners and executives. They were focusing on increased self-confidence among female garments workers and more supportive attitudes within families and communities, together contributing to an increase in the proportion of women in supervisory and machine operator roles within the Bangladesh RMG sector.
Pilot two – spurring impact though innovation
During the spring 2021 H&M Foundation and BRAC arranged a global virtual conference, bringing together relevant stakeholders in the RMG sector to foster communication, collaboration and co-creation. The aim was to provide a broad understanding of the evolving needs and behaviours in the apparel industry in Bangladesh and beyond, and to catalyze cross-industry conversations on future-of-work related business innovations. The conference genereated important insights on how to smoothen the transition in Bangladesh from an industry, human and gender perspective.
In the fall of 2021, the conference was followed up by an innovation challenge. Curated and based on the insights and knowledge generated from the conference, the challenge aimed to identify six innovations that would have the potential to improve the industry competitiveness and livelihood of women garment workers. These six winners, announced in February 2022, have received $30,000 each as well as an incubation programme, providing readiness support and industry access, starting to pilot their innovations in dedicated Bangladeshi factories from day one.