Global collaborations help shift industry norms in Pakistan

1 Jul 2024

Mamun Chowdhury stood in the factory manager’s office, trying to delicately push the issue of why many women didn’t work at the garment factory in Punjab province, Pakistan. The manager explained that women weren’t interested in working at the factory– they would much rather be at home. Chowdhury gently pushed the issue forward: Were there facilities that accommodated working mothers – like a day-care or breastfeeding areas? No. Were there maternity leave policies in place? No. Were pregnant women or women with children encouraged to apply? No.

As he asked these questions, he uncovered the complex issues underlying the cultural norms: unlike in his native Bangladesh, garment factories in Pakistan are predominantly powered by male workers.  While some women prefer to work in the home, Chowdhury learned that in some cases, pregnant women were not included in the application process, and women could lose their jobs if they became pregnant.

“Now we’ve found an important issue,” says Chowdhury. “So how do we uncover these important issues and begin to address them?”

Mamun Chowdhury is an Enterprise Advisor for Better Work Bangladesh, which means he is one of the people that enters factories to assess the working conditions and lead advisory sessions. In Pakistan, he was working side-by-side with Better Work Pakistan Enterprise Advisors to provide on-the-job coaching and counsel as they conducted factory assessments and advisory sessions. While assessments are in place to establish a baseline compliance level with national laws and international labour standards, advisory sessions are Better Work’s way of digging deeper. They are a dialogue-driven opportunity to help better understand ongoing factory issues and chronic non-compliances.

Chowdhury also sits on Better Work’s Factory Engagement Committee (FEC), a global group of technical field staff who come together to discuss Better Work’s approach and methodology, and how it is working in different country contexts. It is through this role that he wound up in Pakistan, supporting the country programme and Enterprise Advisors as they navigate relationships with factories there.

While each country has a unique cultural and industry context, Better Work has a tried-and-true methodology that has been proven to work, both in terms of strengthening business health and competitiveness, and improving working conditions. But resolving issues of non-compliance, especially those with deep roots in a culture, like the relative absence of women in the workplace, requires perseverance on the part of Better Work staff, factory management, and other industry stakeholders. Better Work’s collaborative approach allows knowledge sharing between colleagues from various country contexts, to approach challenges from different perspectives. Technical field staff like Chowdhury (who has also recently been deployed to Uzbekistan) have been visiting newly established country programmes to promote this kind of exchange.

One key that Enterprise Advisors have found to unlock long-term improvements is the power of dialogue. Specifically, dialogue between workers and managers. Dialogue takes place between unions or elected worker representatives and factory management, often through a “bipartite” (dually representative) committee.  

“We have found that often, management doesn’t have much trust with worker representatives, because there is a fear that they might create more problems rather than solve them,” says Chowdhury. With workers accounting for over 90% of the factory presence and management only a small presence, there is fear – if workers have full knowledge of their rights, could it threaten the business? While a common anxiety, Chowdhury says, “In our experience, when management trusts bipartite committees and unions and worker representatives, they solve issues more effectively and more sustainably.”

Iftikhar Ahmad is a newly hired Enterprise Advisor for Better Work Pakistan. Ahmad has worked for a number of UN agencies, often in enterprise development.  

“Establishing inclusive bipartite committees is at the core of the Better Work mission,” says Ahmad. Yet it’s not so simple. Establishing committees isn’t the only important avenue to stronger industrial relations; unions play a key role in collective bargaining at the factory and national level. Supporting factories establishing bipartite committees also isn’t straightforward. Under the tutelage of Chowdhury and other FEC members, Ahmad began to learn how to investigate the legitimacy of the committees: “We learned to ask the deeper questions: When was the election held? What was the agenda of the last meeting? If you ask different people and get different answers, you find that the committee is not so genuine.” The challenge lies not only in establishing inclusive bipartite committees, but also in creating a more robust environment for workplace dialogue overall.

Living and working in Pakistan most of his life, Ahmad is familiar with the industrial culture and the history of the country, and why there are underlying tensions between managers and workers. These tensions have historic roots – from the nationalization of Pakistan’s industries in the 1970s, to the country’s garment industry rebuilding itself. This history has an impact on the industrial culture, including some scepticism of worker-manager dialogue and the role of unions.

By solving problems and sharing ideas through dialogue, Better Work is offering one model of what they want to see take shape at the factory level. The FEC offers a forum for technical officers to share their ideas, experience, knowledge and potential grievances. It also, in Chowdhury’s words, “sends a message that if you have capacity and potential, in the future, you may have a leadership role.” Empowering workers to have their voices and concerns heard is what EAs report can transform factory culture, performance, and working conditions. 

Chowdhury is not the only staff member from Bangladesh having an influence on the new Pakistan programme. Farzana Islam started at Better Work as an EA, then became the first female team leader for Better Work Bangladesh, and now is the Operations Manager of Better Work Pakistan. In this role, Islam has experienced first-hand some of the cultural differences that other EAs have observed in the factories.

Operations Manager Farzana Islam considers improved gender inclusion, social dialogue, and occupational safety and health top areas of focus for Better Work Pakistan.

“In the industry, female representation is very low,” she says.  “We also try to balance gender in our own recruitment. We started with three male EAs and one female… now have 10 EAs total, five men and five women.” Beyond the numbers, Islam’s position as a leader in a male-dominated field can pose a challenge. While Bangladesh’s garment industry is predominantly female, Pakistan’s is predominantly (nearly 70%) male.

 “I take it with a sense of pride to represent myself as a leader, and people in Pakistan are very nice,” says Islam. “Yet it’s challenging.” She describes her first presentation at an industry seminar – there were 50 participants, and she was the only woman in the room.

“The positive impact of prioritizing gender equality in Pakistan’s apparel supply chain is multi-fold,” Islam says. “By empowering women, the industry can tap into a larger talent pool and benefit from diverse perspectives.”

Of course, gender is not the only issue that the operations team in Pakistan is reckoning with in this new country context.

“We are not a policing agent, going to factories to find non-compliances; Better Work is much bigger than that,” says Islam. “What we can do is share the data and evidence. Then, we can start a dialogue with stakeholders: Look at OSH (Occupational Safety and Health), with 50% non-compliance… there are not adequate guidelines in place, and we need your support to improve on this.”

Better Work Pakistan is dedicated to enabling factories and industry stakeholders to take a long-term approach, investing in making real cultural transformation. Pakistan has its own unique context, impacted by disruptions in the global supply chains, but also localized challenges around economic stability. “The industry will be able to move forward more quickly to address these challenges where management and workers work together effectively,” says Islam.

Team members like Iftikhar Ahmad are in place to facilitate factory owners to start down the long but rewarding path to addressing non-compliances and listening to workers’ grievances.

“Management often wants to solve their problems in a quick way,” he says. “But the key is longer-term solutions. The management must change. The systems must change.”

The team’s work on facilitating avenues for workplace dialogue and strong industrial relations is one among many steps down that path.

“Pakistan’s apparel industry stands on the threshold of immense potential and promising opportunities,” concludes Islam. “By actively promoting gender equality and promoting safe and healthy workplaces, we can cultivate a thriving, sustainable, and globally competitive supply chain, benefiting both the nation’s economy and its workers.”

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