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From auditing to coaching: How the Better Work Academy is paving a new path

20 Feb 2020

Since 2015, the Academy has been building the capacity of brands, manufacturers and industry actors to problem-solve and identify long-term solutions.

Hong Kong—Like any first day of school, curiosity runs high among Better Work Academy participants as they walk into the classroom. Bubbling chatter fills the air as attendees wait for the session to start. Gradually, the crowded room falls silent as a familiar voice with a playful tone speaks up.

“Join the Better Work Academy as you would any partnership,” William Lee, Hong Kong-based Gap Inc. Senior Director for Global Sustainability, tells fellow brand representatives. “Trust is fundamental. Open communication is essential. Share your expectations and questions. Be positive. Believe in the process, believe in the relationship and you will gain a lot.”

During its decade-long activity in some of the garment industry’s pivotal production hubs worldwide, Better Work has developed methodologies proven to have more impact than years of social compliance auditing alone. Rather than the typical scenario of auditors acting like police, and continually finding the same issues year upon year, Better Work takes a different approach.  The programme’s model has moved the needle, shifting the focus to partnership and coaching for factories.

And when the results of impact assessments showed that the model worked – both in terms of improving conditions and enhancing companies’ competitiveness – Better Work decided it was time to start sharing this approach with others. The Better Work Academy was born – aimed specifically at building the capacity of brands and manufacturers to scale the programme’s positive impacts.

“Four years ago, Gap Inc. noticed from their own internal analysis that our advisory services and training led to more sustainable improvements in their factories,” says Minna Maaskola-Desprez, Better Work Senior Technical Specialist in Training and Capacity Building.

“So, they said, what about you train our people to transform the way they work so we can scale the impacts we have seen in Better Work factories?”

Today, the Academy’s footprint stretches across some 300 factories spanning Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, Brazil, Portugal, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Ethiopia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar and China.

“Partnering with the Better Work Academy allowed us to join our peers in the industry-wide efforts to amplify the voices of workers in factories around the world,” said Emily Mi, Director of Corporate Responsibility at PVH Shanghai. “Better Work has not only empowered factory workers, but they’ve provided us all with a uniform set of tools needed to align our programs across brands, and together affect change at scale and maximize our industrial impact. This model enables PVH to support sustained improvements in working conditions and we’re excited to see the reach of the programme expand.”

Additional brands have also joined the Academy, including Levi’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods, The Children’s Place, American Eagle, New Balance and The Walt Disney Company.

During the two-year Better Work Academy curriculum, Better Work staff train brands’ compliance, sustainability and responsible sourcing teams to shift their role from auditing to facilitating change in the factories from which they source.

Over the course of the programme, attendees spend 16 days in a classroom, receiving training on soft skills and Better Work’s signature workplace cooperation training focused on communications and grievance mechanisms, among other topics.

Meanwhile, participants debate, read case studies and learn more about industrial relations and social dialogue through distance learning courses. Better Work also follows participants across its country programmes and beyond – as far afield as China, India and Guatemala – to give them on-site coaching.

“Back in 2014, Gap Inc. felt that work on auditing and remediation was not enough. That was when we started to work on building suppliers’ capability and enhance supplier ownership, and tried to bring new elements into our programme,” Lee says.

Others were in the same boat.

“Audits alone aren’t enough,” says Ninh Trinh, Hong Kong-based Regional Director of Responsible Sourcing for Target. “The impact that the Better Work programme was able to drive, for both workers and the businesses, was exactly the right combination for us as we’re committed to positively impact worker well-being in our supply chain.”

There was hesitation at the beginning, as teams switched to the new “facilitator” mentality. They wondered how factories would trust them in a new role designed to drive improvement rather than just identify risk.

“The team needed this time to adapt,” he says. “It is so important to go slowly. Conversations with Better Work started in December 2015 and it has been a journey ever since. We’re so happy that we decided to join the Academy.”

Trinh says everything changed when the team started to hear the factories’ feedback. They were thankful and enthusiastic about the new approach, feeling empowered to ultimately be able to do the job themselves.

In a soon to be published impact assessment of the Better Work Academy, a Gap Inc. factory management representative in China says that the implementation of the new coaching approach has resulted in improved and more consistent knitting quality, increased output and capacity, and a downturn in defect rates.

The mood on the factory floor has also improved. Workers in the factory in China say that they work more efficiently and that complaints have decreased because they feel communication is smoother. In turn, the quality of their work has also improved.

“When we have good communication, everything is better,” one of the workers says. “In the past, arguments sometimes happened because of a lack of communication. Everyone is happier now.”

Meanwhile, Better Work country programmes have seen an uptick in good practices spurred by the Better Work Academy.

Better Work Bangladesh Deputy Programme Manager Jenny Hickey supervised the Academy from Bangkok in 2017 before relocating to Dhaka.

Back in the classroom in Hong Kong, where a new group of brands is about to embark on the Better Work Academy journey, Better Work Maaskola-Desprez chuckles softly and looks into the audience.

“It is really a unique relationship that we are building; we become closer, we understand each other better,” she says. “It is ups and downs, but it is a commitment to becoming better, together.”

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