GENEVA— While 2020 will likely be considered a landmark year in the industry for its challenges, there are also important bright spots.
This month marks the culmination of a years-long research project, chronicling a partnership between the ILO/IFC Better Work Academy and Gap Inc. that shows a marked increase in communication between workers and managers and improved working conditions in the retailers’ factories around the world. Beyond improvements for workers, the business case is compelling—the research also indicates increased production efficiency in factories participating in the academy.
“Impacts on the Shop Floor: An Evaluation of the Better Work – Gap Inc. program on Workplace Cooperation,” by Professor Kelly Pike, constitutes a milestone worth celebrating. The study analyses the results of three years of the Gap Inc. team members participating in the Better Work Academy, a training programme aimed at providing Gap Inc. teams with the skills to promote greater communication between workers and managers in its factories. The findings are based on interviews with Gap Inc. Supplier Sustainability team members, management representatives, workers and their representatives across factories in Asia and Central America, as well as analyses of data contained in Gap Inc. quarterly reports.
“Through partnership, we can look at the root causes of working conditions problems in the industry and address them together,” says Minna Maaskola, who leads Better Work’s training team. “It’s about problem solving and collaborating at the factory level, rather than having external parties coming in to police factories.”
This philosophy has proven results, and other major global brands including Target, Levi’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods, PVH, The Children’s Place, American Eagle, New Balance and The Walt Disney Company have also joined the Better Work Academy as long term partners. Fast Retailing, the Japan-based owner of Uniqlo, has also recently announced that they are on board to join the Better Work Academy.
Today, the Academy’s footprint stretches across some 300 factories spanning 14 countries. These are promising developments at a time when brands, factories and workers are struggling to survive the economic squeeze of the pandemic.
What is so special about the Better Work Academy programme?
The approach enables staff from retailers like Gap Inc. or Target to take an active role in training managers and workers in their supplying factories. This hinges on what the industry calls “bipartite dialogue,” open communication between workers and employers to find cooperative solutions. Offering these two groups a seat at a common table brings not only compromise, but moments of real transformation.
Reema Agrawal, a Gap Inc. Senior Programme Manager in the company’s Supplier Sustainability team, knows this first hand. Her first training with the Better Work Academy was in Cambodia in 2015.
“When we started training in communications in Phnom Penh, we were sort of raw. We didn’t have much experience delivering training,” says Agrawal. “But after five years, I feel like communication is integral to everything else, whether you’re talking about grievance handling or problem solving.”
Beyond communication, the Academy programme focuses on creative, interactive solutions for problem solving and grievance mechanisms, risk management, health and safety concerns and other issues. Participants in the classroom (or virtual classroom), participate in debate, reading case studies and learning about industrial relations and social dialogue.
“Communication training can help people to build respect and trust, especially between management and workers. Workers can even utilize the skills in their family life,” says Sophia Yu, a Gap Inc. Supplier Sustainability Project Manager. “There were enthusiastic discussions as this was really relevant to their work and life.”
Yet a challenge remained: making sure that the workshops and associated coaching had depth and lasting resonance for participants. Agrawal recalls asking Maaskola how to address this issue.
“The question is: How do we squeeze the juice?” Maaskola said. The shared learning philosophy lies beneath this simple question. “It’s digging deeper,” she says, “not only asking the questions, but allowing the learners time for reflection and staying in the moment. After all, they are the experts.”
Indeed, “squeezing the juice” is what trainers like Agrawal and Yu have sought to do.
Agrawal has learned to be aware of her language and tone when training groups, since they are comprised of people of a variety of education and experience levels. Pike’s research also contributed to shaping the implementation of the program to maximize efficacy and results, including “adapting training materials to meet diverse educational, cultural and language differences – including more pictures and other visuals; and getting people on the ground to assist with terminology and advise on other cultural nuances.”
The benefits for workers were clear: the programme facilitated formation of bipartite committees (legally required in some countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia) through elections, increasing gender equality within those committees, and facilitating a stronger system of managing grievances. The study also found increased comfort raising grievances about issues like wages, welfare, and working hours.
Equally compelling, Gap’s quarterly reports showed that production efficiency increased overall in all countries from 2017 to 2018. In 2018, employee absenteeism and turnover rates also decreased in most countries.
Perhaps the most important result of Gap Inc. involvement in the Academy is their appreciation of seeing the improved relationships between employers and employees.
“One worker in the Programme was so shy when she first attended training,” says Yu, “but eventually, she became confident enough to share her opinions with management, and she was promoted as the line leader and factory internal trainer.”
“We all understand that there are a lot of power dynamics at play,” says Agrawal. “In this program, we bring them together in a room as equals, so they see each other as equal partners, become comfortable around each other, and break those barriers.”