Gerry Boyle: New Evidence Supporting the Business Case for Investing in Female Garment Workers

Image: CARE/Josh Estey 2014

By Gerry Boyle, Senior Policy Adviser, CARE International UK

CARE’s programmes on dignified work have for a number of years included training sessions for women in factories. Recent research provides further evidence, backing up our own findings, that investing in training for women workers makes good business sense for factory owners.

A key initiative that we have been involved in implementing has been the Gap Inc P.A.C.E. (Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement) programme which launched in 2007 to provide life skills education to female garment workers within Gap Inc’s supply chain.

With proven results, in 2013 P.A.C.E. expanded beyond the factory setting and into communities. Now in 12 countries, more than 45,000 women have participated in P.A.C.E. so far, and Gap Inc has committed to improve the lives of one million women through P.A.C.E. by 2020.

CARE has been involved in implementing the programme in factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam. Now a team of academics have published a paper which shows the impressively strong business results that “soft skills” training can provide for workers and factory owners. For instance, the authors report that:

  • The rate of return by the end of the implementation phase was 124%, ie the programme pretty much paid for itself as it was carried out (page 4)
  • Nine months after programme completion, the return reached 420% (page 4) which is very high
  • For the women, those who participated were “much more likely to be promoted” (page 25)

The issue

As the authors point out, there is a lot of evidence that soft skills (eg teamwork, leadership, allocating time and money effectively, assimilating information) are important for success in the labour market.

The authors also, however, point to worries that these skills may be difficult to develop in adulthood, and particularly for those who start from disadvantaged backgrounds. If this pessimistic view is true, it would point to considerable barriers to escaping poverty as there is a strong connection between family income and early development of these soft skills.

And of course, although the authors do not directly address this point, very often girls get fewer opportunities to develop these skills due to gender bias. This is a key concern for CARE, with our emphasis on supporting women and girls. (Gap Inc has also noted this need, and has developed a pilot programme for girls aged 11-17, in community settings, that is being launched in India and Haiti called P.A.C.E. for Adolescent Girls.)

The study

The academics conducted a randomised controlled trial (RCT) – often viewed as the “gold standard” of evidence (although there’s a whole heap of nerdy disagreements about that). They worked with the largest ready-made garment export firm in India – Shahi Exports – which was implementing the P.A.C.E. programme in their factories.

They randomly assigned workers to being trained or not being trained and also then randomly assigned production lines to “treatment” and “control” (and that’s as scientific as I get). Selected staff received the P.A.C.E. training and the academics measured a number of outcomes in the factories including individual worker productivity, attendance and promotions.

The training covers communications; problem-solving and decision-making; time and stress management; water, sanitation and hygiene; financial literacy; general and reproductive health; legal literacy and social entitlements; and execution excellence. All of this takes a total of 68.5 hours, which was spread out over 11 months.

The results

As highlighted above, there were very substantial returns for the business across productivity improvements and increased retention: “…not only are workers in the treatment group assigned to more complex tasks during and after the program, they are more efficient than the control group.” Also, worker retention is improved.

From the workers’ perspective, key benefits included “P.A.C.E. workers are more likely to be promoted relative to control workers” (page 25) and “treatment workers were more likely to be saving for children’s education” (page 3).

Critically, given the point made at the beginning of the blog about the concerns about teaching soft skills to adults, the evidence from this study seems clear that “soft skills training can not only be taught to adults, but that the workplace impacts of such training can be positive and lasting” (page 34).

CARE’s engagement therefore in a number of skills training programmes in the workplace points towards one way in which we can continue women’s economic empowerment. However, if the business benefits are well-proven, why aren’t factories more interested in implementing them? And how do we ensure that they share the gains equitably with their workers?

 

Editor's Note:


This article first appeared on Care Insights and is reproduced with permission.

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