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Global Pandemic Highlights the Need for Ongoing Focus on Factory Working Conditions

6 Jul 2020

Geneva, July 03: The current crisis faced by the apparel industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the issues faced by workers in garment factories around the world. This week, Better Work releases the first in a series of eight country-specific reports and the remaining reports will be progressively added over the coming weeks. In addition to describing initiatives to address the crisis, the reports detail the progress that has been made – and the ongoing challenges – to improve working conditions across the countries where Better Work operates.

The eight Annual Reports – based on data collected throughout 2019 – highlight the status of factory compliance levels across Vietnam, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Jordan, and Nicaragua. The reports also feature innovation and case studies, looking both at COVID-19-related responses as well as industry-wide efforts throughout the course of the past year.

The publications feature evidence of steady improvement in key areas of working conditions for factories that commit to long-term collaboration with Better Work. Mature factories in Vietnam have decreased worker exposure to chemicals, with non-compliance dropping to 2%. A similar pattern was observed in Jordan, where the vast majority of mature factories (96%) are now providing safe drinking water to workers, a marked change from baseline. Bangladeshi factories that have been with programme since its inception have significantly improved minimum wage payments, with 9 out of 10 factories complying with the minimum wage law.

Many of the reports pay particular attention to efforts between Better Work and its partners to address gender and sexual harassment issues across the industry. In Bangladesh, for instance, a training programme focused on female supervisors has led to 74% of the female participants to move into supervisory roles, earning an increased salary of 39% on average. Across the globe, Haiti implemented a zero-tolerance policy in 2019 to tackle sexual harassment, one of the many interventions that has led to a marked decrease in workers reporting problems with sexual harassment at work and an increase in offenders being held accountable.

There are other notable achievements. In Vietnam, for instance, Better Work has recorded the lowest non-compliance rate in five years regarding keeping of multiple payroll records, showing a decrease to 19% from the previous 42%.  In Nicaragua, all factories now provide adequate time off for breastfeeding breaks and there were no cases reported of bullying, harassment or humiliating treatment. In Ethiopia, all factories provided the required maternity leave.

Of particular concern remains the high levels of non-compliance across the industry on issues related to occupational health and safety. Several countries still observe instances of obstructed fire exits, including Vietnam (26% of factories) and Bangladesh (36% of factories). Issues around providing Personal Protective Equipment are also still present. In Cambodia 42% of factories did not provide adequate equipment (42%) and in Jordan, where workers were not trained to use the equipment in 38% of factories.

Despite the challenges, there were some improvements in occupational health and safety. In Nicaragua, for instance, new cooling systems have led to both improved productivity and working conditions.

“Now we are more productive and can go home early because we’ve reached our goals,” says Aloika Patricia Gutierrez García, a sewing operator at Gildan Factory, in Managua.

In 2019, there were also many new collaborations between Better Work and industry stakeholders to tackle on-the-ground problems while also addressing country-level issues. Better Work Cambodia, for instance, partnered with 17 institutions to improve the safety of worker transportation to the factories. The pilot project reduced by 77% the incidence of road crash cases involving employees.

About Better Work Programme

Better Work – a collaboration between the United Nation’s International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group – is a comprehensive programme bringing together all levels of the garment industry to improve working conditions and respect of labour rights for workers, and boost the competitiveness of apparel businesses.

As a result of their participation with Better Work, factories have steadily improved compliance with ILO core labour standards and national legislation covering compensation, contracts, occupational safety and health and working time. This has significantly improved working conditions and, at the same time enhanced factories’ productivity and profitability.

Currently, the programme is active in 1,700 factories employing more than 2.4 million workers in nine countries.  As well as advising factories, Better Work collaborates with governments to improve labour laws, and with brands to ensure progress is sustained. We also advise unions on how to give workers a greater say in their lives, and work with donors to help achieve their broader development goals.

Our vision is a global garment industry that lifts millions of people out of poverty by providing decent work, empowering women, driving business competitiveness and promoting inclusive economic growth.

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