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Healthy minds matter: New programme aims to engage, educate garment workers on World Mental Health Day and beyond

8 Nov 2021

AR-RAMTHA, Jordan—In her Bengali traditional dress, Nashit stood in the courtyard of the Workers’ Centre in Al Hassan Industrial Zone, reading a booklet about how to be aware of the signs of mental ill-health.

Nashit joined dozens of other migrant workers from different garment factories in the northern Irbid Governorate in recreational and educational activities organized by the Better Work Jordan  programme as part of an awareness-raising campaign about garment workers’ mental health. Migrant workers have been particularly vulnerable to the economic instability and isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have not been able to visit their home countries and have spent long periods of quarantine in dormitories.

Yet this day, the workers mingled, talked, drew, performed physical activities, and danced to traditional music of their home countries, as they tried to clear their minds of work-related stress.

Jordan’s garment sector employs 65,026 workers, 72 per cent of whom are women and migrants make up 76 per cent of the workforce.

“We live far away from home, family, and friends. Such activities help us unwind, and meet new friends,” says Nashit, 36, who arrived in Jordan six months ago from Bangladesh. “I see how problems at work, including bullying, affect workers and create physical and mental stress. Interacting with people and counselling are very important.”

Better Work Jordan, a joint initiative of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, held these activities under its Mental Health Project, funded by the US Department of Labor. The project aims to support and empower garment workers to improve their mental health, especially female workers, who experience various physical and psychological stressors both in and outside of the workplace.

Better Work Jordan covers 88 factories, working with roughly 95 per cent of garment workers in Jordan. In 2020, garment exports were valued at $1.6 billion and made up 22 per cent of all Jordan’s exports.

At the event, Better Work counselled workers, explaining stress impacts on their mental health, and discussed healthy ways to manage and reduce pressure and tension. The workers also learned about the negative effects of poor working conditions, isolation and social media and how to avoid them.

 Developing self-care strategies

Marja, 21, took part in the artistic activities, finding stress relief in painting.

“I am drawing my country’s flag, Bangladesh,” said Marja, as she smiled, holding green and red paintbrushes. “I enjoy drawing because it makes me feel relaxed, distracting me from thinking about the daily stresses of work.”

Marja arrived in Jordan a month ago. “Sometimes, I feel homesick, missing my family, but I am happy to work here. I really enjoyed these activities.”

The Mental Health Project focuses on building garment workers’ resilience against mental health risks, including ensuring that factory-level support exists, and mental health referral systems are accessible by all workers.

“The activities seek to increase awareness of mental health, help workers de-stress, and create intercultural and social interaction among workers,” says Project Coordinator, Ala’a Nasser.

The World Health Organization (WHO), defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” The WHO estimates that more than 450 million people worldwide are suffering from a mental disorder, resulting in an annual productivity loss of 1 trillion USD and countless personal repercussions.

Improving the work environment 

Fathallah Al Emrani, president of the General Trade Union of Workers in Textile Garment and Clothing Industries, says the mental health project is crucial for workers.

“Living far away from their home countries and families, workers face pressures at work and other challenges, which cause stress and impact overall productivity,” says Al Emrani. “Companies and factories should organize stress-relieving activities for workers on a regular basis and help workers reduce mental health issues, which can lead not just to ill-health, but to suicide.”

Programme Manager, Tareq Abu Qaoud, says, “the issue of mental health is sensitive and critical, especially when dealing with migrant workers.

“Through the mental health project, Better Work started cooperating with local and international partners to improve the mental health of local and migrant workers, but the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the implementation of the project and contributed to an increase in psychological pressures on workers,” he said. “The project is raising awareness of mental health. We have noticed workers’ happiness and interaction during the activities, and we hope that the project improves the mental health of workers in this vital sector.”

Sharing the experience

Natasha, Workers’ activities coordinator from Madagascar who joined the Workers’ Centre following her work on well-being at a factory in Jordan in 2013, believes that workers need such activities more often.

“Some of them work 12 hours a day, and this does makes it difficult for workers to relax. We are thinking of organizing these activities once or twice a month, says Natasha, 30.

For some workers, the event was a nice surprise.

“These activities were energetic and everyone was happily participating. We did not expect that. I hope they continue in the future,” said Firas, 32, from Bangladesh, a factory supervisor.

Sunil, who came to Jordan from Sri Lanka 12 years ago, agreed.

“I used to relieve my stress by listening to music and playing games on my mobile phone, but today I have learned new ways to help me de-stress,” said the 42-year-old man, a machine operator supervisor.

“I will definitely take part in such activities if they take place again. I will share my experience with other colleagues who missed the event, and explain to them all the advantages and benefits,” added Sunil.

Better Work Jordan will continue to share updates on the Mental Health Project, as the team develops new ways to help support workers’ mental well-being.

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