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Building Bridges: International businesses join hands with governments

25 Apr 2019

A new project to broaden the impact of Better Work brings together diverse global supply chain players in an innovative partnership to drive long-term change.

25 April, 2019

Bangkok – In a packed meeting room in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, an unlikely group of learners sit side by side.  Labour inspectors, factory managers, employer association representatives, trade union officials, and brand staff sit uncomfortably in a circle. Wide-eyed, they look at each other sceptically, fidgeting with their papers and wondering what’s next.

The participants are attending the first roundtable of an 18-month long programme dubbed “Building Bridges,” a pioneering approach to sustainability in the industrial sector, led by Better Work. The initiative will allow brands and national partners to create a new vision for change in the apparel industry and beyond.

The project is bringing together the country’s public and private sectors in a new way, providing participants with a platform to build trust, raise concerns, look for solutions and discuss the future.  It builds on the successes of the Better Work Academy, which focuses on training brands on successful Better Work approaches, to now include national stakeholders in the countries where Better Work operates.  The ultimate objective is to work with both the public and private sectors together to allow them to create a shared vision for the future of the industry and equip them with the necessary tools to make that vision become reality.

“Having members of safety and labour inspection departments, factories, employer associations and trade unions together sets a precedent for the country,” says Chea Sophal, a Better Factories Cambodia Team Leader. “All these entities carry out different factory inspections. Here, they can reflect together and establish communication channels to discuss a common approach to improve working conditions.”

In the initial seminars, Building Bridges helps participants shape a joint agenda and covers Better Work basics like social dialogue. Throughout the curriculum, participants gain access to Better Work tools and an online learning. Coaching also takes place in affiliated garment factories.

“My hope is that attendees will begin to think about their jobs in a different way and start considering alternative ways of building partnerships,” says Ivo Spauwen, Better Work Technical Specialist for Country Operations and Policy.

Funded by The Walt Disney Company’s Supply Chain Investment Program, the project was also launched across Vietnam and Haiti in the second half of 2018. It is also about to kick off in Nicaragua, helping national partners to use their mandate to strengthen labour law governance and provide stability in the sector for the future. “Better Work’s Building Bridges program is bringing together the public and private sectors in a new way that will build trust and embed local capacity to make meaningful improvements in factory working conditions,” said Laura Rubbo, Director of Responsible Governance and Supply Chains at Disney. “We believe this collaboration will lead to sustainable benefits for workers.”

Responsive to the on-the-ground realities of each country, Building Bridges helps participants create a shared vision for effective collaboration to promote labour standards compliance, sound industrial relations and enterprise competitiveness.

“We have a convening role of connecting participants on the same learning platform,” says Hoang Thi Thanh Nga, a Better Work Vietnam Team Leader. “Different bodies are encouraged to use the learning platform among themselves, without our input. Public sector constituents can connect with the private sector, including brands and factories.”

Discussions focus on industrial relations and influencing skills at the factory level, decision-making and dynamics in global supply chains, risk management and effective problem solving, as well as new thinking on workplace inspections.

“This is an effective approach to improve working conditions in other industries as well, since the approaches used are interesting and beneficial at any factory level,” says Vu Xuan Binh, a representative of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry from Hai Phong, a major industrial city in the country’s north.

These comments are echoed by Nguyen Dinh Khang, a labour inspector from Binh Duong province, in the north of Ho Chi Minh City. “What I learnt from the programme is useful and I see opportunities to apply it in various aspects of my daily work,” he says. “This is an efficient way to improve working conditions across a variety of Vietnamese industrial sectors, since the characteristics of industrial relations in other sectors mirror those in the garment sector. We see real potential to apply this knowledge and skillset to the furniture and mechanical engineering sectors, for example.”

Meanwhile back in Phnom Penh, Building Bridges’ first roundtable is over. Smiles have replaced initial doubtful gazes. Attendees continue their talks well beyond the end of the meeting, while Better Work staff fade away in the background. Handshakes cement the new acquaintances. A snowball effect of change has begun.

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