Stitching progress together: The transformative power of maternity protection in Bangladesh

8 Mar 2024

Dhaka, Bangladesh, 8 March 2024– On a bright morning in Gazipur, Mossamat Sharmin Khatun heads to work at Sparrow Apparels Ltd, her steps brisk with purpose. Sharmin, a native of Sirajgonj district, alongside her spouse, Md. Amirul Islam, are among many people who have benefited from efforts to support working mothers and pregnant women in Bangladesh’s Ready-Made Garment (RMG) sector.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2024, Sharmin’s story illustrates the groundbreaking strides made in maternity protection—a testament to the collaborative efforts of ILO-IFC Better Work Bangladesh and UNICEF through the Mothers@Work initiative. Over half of the four million people working in garment factories in Bangladesh are women of reproductive age.

In August 2022, Sharmin discovered she was pregnant. “The factory became my sanctuary,” she reflects, recounting the unwavering support from her workplace. The welfare officer and medical centre accommodated her needs with special seating arrangements and an adjusted workload. “I was granted 112 days of maternity leave, a gesture that spoke volumes of their commitment to my well-being and that of my child,” she recalls.

When Sharmin returned to work, the childcare centre at Sparrow Apparels became her child’s second home, offering high-quality care and allowing Sharmin to nurse her child during work hours.

“This support system has not only enabled me to continue working but has also empowered me as a mother and a worker,” Sharmin says, her voice tinged with emotion. The factory also provides nutritious snacks to nursing mothers for up to a year.

Taslima Akter Mily shares Sharmin’s perspective. Taslima travelled to Gazipur from the Sherpur district in search of better opportunities. Five years into her employment at the factory, the news of her pregnancy caused some uncertainty, but the management’s assurance of full support quickly allayed it.

“From medical care to a special room for rest, the factory’s provisions for pregnant women have been a beacon of hope,” she says, painting a picture of a nurturing workplace.

Fatima Akther is a Compliance Officer at Sparrow Apparels and the focal point of the Mothers@Work initiative, currently known as the Maternity Protection Programme. “Since 2018, with support from Better Work Bangladesh consisting of assessment, training and hands-on support, we have aimed to provide a supportive environment for working mothers,” Fatima says.

The programme promotes seven minimum standards related to maternity rights and breastfeeding at work. “These facilities are not just amenities; they are investments in our workforce’s productivity and well-being,” she asserts, highlighting the tangible benefits of increased worker retention and productivity.

Ishrat Jahan, Enterprise Advisor at Better Work Bangladesh, emphasizes the programme’s alignment with national and international standards for maternity protection. “Through training, policy development, and the establishment of childcare facilities, we’re not only supporting our workers but also setting a precedent for the industry”, underscoring the initiative’s role in enhancing factory reputations and the sector’s overall competitiveness.

The initiative provides a comprehensive framework designed to safeguard the rights and well-being of working mothers in the garment industry. The seven standards ensure that female employees receive paid maternity leave and other relevant support in accordance with national law, emphasizing the importance of continued income and job security.

As well as paid maternity leave, the standards focus on childcare provision, cash and medical benefits, breastfeeding spaces, breastfeeding breaks, employment protection and non-discrimination, and safe-work provision.

Providing targeted support for women in the workplace and ensuring they can earn a living, while also having support to care for their children, has yielded significant results. The programme has reached 280,000 workers in 103 factories, training over 2,000 HR and compliance staff, and ensuring the provision of maternity benefits and breastfeeding support across participating factories.

Stories like those of Sharmin, Taslima, and the proactive measures at Sparrow Apparels exemplify the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, ‘Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress’. The Mothers@Work programme, a collaborative endeavour with UNICEF, has been a cornerstone in promoting the rights of working mothers in Bangladesh’s RMG sector, underscoring how targeted investments in maternity protection can lead to wider social and economic advancements.

The commitment to ensuring maternity rights and fostering environments supportive of breastfeeding among working mothers is a pivotal step towards achieving gender equality and enhancing women’s well-being. As Sharmin explains, “The support I’ve received has enabled me to nurture my child and rekindled my confidence and motivation. It’s a testament to what we can achieve when we invest in women.”

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