Walking past rows of workers leaning over their whirring sewing machines in a Jordan-based garment factory, Fatema stops and points at a series of cartoons displayed on the wall.
Once a machine operator in her native Bangladesh, Fatema left her country in search of a better-paying job seven years ago and rose through the ranks to become a production line supervisor some 4,000 miles from home.
“These images led me to where I am today, professionally,” she said. “They helped me learn about the norms we have to follow in factories and develop my supervisory skills.”
Fatema was referring to the cartoons produced by Better Work, a flagship programme of the ILO, jointly managed by the International Finance Corporation and dedicated to improving working conditions and competitiveness in the global garment industry.
Initially focused on topics related to workplace safety and health, five years on, Better Work’s posters now cover good and bad practices related to many areas of factory life.
30 colourful cartoons and two animated videos can be seen in use across the seven countries where the programme operates, bringing to life interactions between government, management and workers – a realm officially known as industrial relations, or IR for short.
“The idea for the cartoons came about when we gathered a group of IR experts to discuss how to improve our work,” said Daniel Cork, Technical Specialist at Better Work and the project’s lead creator.
“One of the requests that came up was to translate complicated ILO conventions and technical principles into a language that people can easily understand,” he said.
The animations and posters, brought to life by Jordanian cartoonist Omar Momani, have simplicity, immediacy and light-heartedness at their core.
After visiting several garment factories to better grasp the context where his characters would later take life, Momani believed cartoons with slapstick humor could overcome cultural barriers in an international workforce.
“The cartoons help us talk with brands about their sourcing practices and the origin of supply chain pressure,” Cork said. “IR is often like a rollercoaster. Cartoons are a good tool to talk about the tensions across the sector and their consequences on factories and workers.”
In Viet Nam, where over 400 factories engage with Better Work, reaching some 650,000 workers, Enterprise Advisor and Team Leader Nguyen Duc Thien said the cartoons have eased productivity issues.
Thien explained that the minimum wage in the country—some 200USD per month in the capital Ho Chi Minh City—is subject to increases on an annual basis. This creates a real challenge for the companies producing there because the garment sector is so labour-intensive. Unless production becomes more efficient, businesses cannot keep the pace with countries where the workforce cost is much lower.
“Managers want workers to produce more,” Thien said. “They might shout at their employees to reach their goals instead of promoting dialogue, which we have shown actually increases productivity. This is why we use the cartoons, especially the one showing the importance of making workers aware of the factory’s plans to reach its targets.”
In Haiti, demonstrations and strikes calling for better working conditions and a substantial raise to the minimum wage have stalled operations in the textile sector since mid-May. Here too, the use of cartoons is an important tool for encouraging social dialogue.
“After some initial resistance, we succeeded in hanging the posters in each of the country’s 27 garment factories,” said Rolf Berthold, Better Work Haiti’s Industrial Relations Officer. “It is essential for the workers to know that we are around.”
“Many of the workers are illiterate or have limited levels of education,” Berthold said. “Yet they clearly understand the posters’ message. This helps create the much-needed dialogue the sector is currently lacking.”
Better Work Jordan Enterprise Advisor Maysa Al-Hmouz said the cartoons were also an apt solution in Jordan because of the large number of migrant workers in the local sector and the lack of a common language.
The posters are key to building trust among all industry stakeholders, she explained. “They allow us to start a conversation”.
And, when addressing delicate topics like workplace rights, with multiple actors and diverse perspectives, sometimes a start is exactly what is needed.
According to a study by Tufts University, Better Work has had a significant and positive impact on working conditions. The programme has decreased gender pay gap by up to 17 per cent and reduced sexual harassment concerns by as much as 18 per cent. Meanwhile, profitability in the factories Better Work engages has increased by up to 25 per cent.
The study also indicated that social dialogue plays an important part in improving workers’ outcomes, especially when fair elections for worker representatives were in place, and women are among the elected representatives.