4IR Workforce in Bangladesh Must Include Women—Here’s How
February 16, 2022
Rapidly growing Bangladesh is critically dependent on its ready-made-garment (RMG) industry, but its long reliance on unskilled labor has led to declining competitiveness. Now there’s a revolution in factory productivity on the horizon that could revitalize the nation’s RMG sector, but it’s a double-edged sword. The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will create countless opportunities for Bangladesh to increase the productivity of its most vital industry, but it could also leave women garment workers behind.
A constellation of factors have emerged as threats to the productivity of Bangladesh’s RMG workers: low wages, lack of training, dangerous or unhealthy work environments, poor nutrition, lack of education, and unhealthy living conditions, among others. For women, these factors are compounded by their traditional responsibility for the unpaid work of family life—shopping, cooking, housekeeping, and childrearing. It is unsurprising, then, that women, who make up 60 percent of the nation’s garment workers, are disproportionately employed in lower-skilled and less-secure jobs than their male colleagues, and the push for productivity poses a special threat to them.
Bangladesh thus appears to be stuck between the rock of declining competitiveness and the hard place of providing equitable opportunities.
In May 2020, the H&M Foundation launched the pilot phase of the Future Work Collective Impact Initiative in Bangladesh to improve the lives and safeguard the livelihoods of women garment workers as the industry evolves. The initiative has several components, coordinated by The Asia Foundation, including training in advanced machine operation, multimedia communications campaigns that challenge gender norms, and community-level interventions addressing gender-based violence and mental health. Perhaps the most innovative project has been the STITCH for RMG Global Innovation Challenge, implemented by the BRAC Social Innovation Lab.
Launched in October 2021, STITCH for RMG invited innovators from around the world to devise ways to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of women RMG workers by making factories more equitable and women less vulnerable to automation. The goals of the project were ambitious, but the reception was enthusiastic.
The application round drew 220 proposals from teams in 29 different countries. Thirty-nine of these teams were then invited to develop brief video pitches. This was followed by a marketplace round in which 12 teams and seven partner factories worked on the nuts and bolts of compatibility, collaboration, and implementation. In a first for Bangladesh, the whole process was conducted completely online.
The most interesting part was to see the range of innovations from different parts of the world. Many focused on products, many on services, many on raw materials and circularity, and so on. Trying to determine which were feasible and scalable on the grounds of Bangladeshi RMG factories was challenging, but the hardest part was having to shortlist the teams and say goodbye to some beautiful ideas.
— Project Manager Mohammad Daulat-Al-Rashid, BRAC Social Innovation Lab.
Finally, after months of planning, pitching, and evaluation by judges, factories, and other stakeholders, six winners were chosen:
- Agroshift (Bangladesh). Agroshift, which has been working to streamline Bangladesh’s inefficient agricultural supply chain, is developing a digital grocery-ordering platform for garment workers that provides commodities like fruits, vegetables, rice, milk, and meat, along with other daily needs, efficiently and affordably. Workers will place digital orders through a mobile app or at ordering kiosks set up within factories. Agroshift will fulfill orders directly from their farmer network, eliminating middlemen and spoilage in shipping and saving customers as much as 15 percent. The savings in time and money will be particularly useful to women workers because of their traditional responsibilities as homemakers in Bangladesh.
- i-SMART (India). i-SMART is developing a skills-rating matrix for women sewing workers. The purpose is to provide a standardized assessment of nine different skills for sewing workers to make sure that their skills are recognized and reduce the chances they will be underpaid or exploited in their factory jobs.
- Jyoti (Bangladesh). Jyoti is a vending machine for menstrual pads that is internet-monitored to make sure it’s never empty. Lack of ready access to these products among poor women reinforces poor hygiene habits that lead to discomfort and sometimes disease that can interfere with job performance and women’s perceived value as workers. Bangladesh-based Vertical Innovations will install these smart vending machines in garment factories to make menstrual products more readily available and affordable.
- Quizrr (Sweden). Quizrr, an international provider of educational technology for labor and human rights training, will expand its engagement with the Bangladesh RMG sector to improve women’s job skills, workplace leadership, and digital literacy to prepare them for the coming changes in the garment industry. The end goal is reduced worker turnover, greater job satisfaction, increased productivity, constructive workplace dialogue, and more female workers becoming leaders, line managers, and worker representatives.
- Sustify (Germany). Sustify creates engaging, “gamified” e-learning courses for occupational health and safety and basic workers’ rights. Sustify will build the capacity of women garment workers in Bangladesh to ensure compliance with the social and environmental standards that customers increasingly demand, while meeting the challenges of 4IR.
- ToguMogu (Bangladesh). ToguMogu, a one-stop parenting website, is developing a health and wellness platform to support female garment workers from pregnancy through the first five years of their children’s lives. The goal is to increase women’s job retention after pregnancy or other health issues and to improve their productivity in the factory by easing the burden of family care that women workers in Bangladesh must traditionally shoulder.
Learn more about the winning ideas and companies behind them!
The winning initiatives were announced at a live ceremony on February 7 featuring the jubilant winners and a panel of speakers representing organizations that support the further development of the RMG industry. The speakers praised the winners for their entrepreneurial spirit and emphasized the importance of investing in innovation, which, they noted, doesn’t necessarily have to be complex or high-tech to be transformative.
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj, The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Bangladesh, touched on the human element behind STITCH for RMG:
The thing that stood out for me in the pitches is how the applicants used empathy to create their solutions. It is not just the technology behind the innovations, but rather how it is appropriate in a context, in a gender-sensitive manner. I think that this empathy can be felt in all these programs.
In the next phase of the initiative, each winning team will receive up to $30,000 to pilot their project for two months in selected factories. During this incubation phase, they will also receive mentorship sessions from industry experts, tailor-made business capacity-building for their teams, and help in developing their business models to take their initiatives to scale. Winning the challenge was just the first step toward the overall goal, and as a member of the Quizrr team put it, “Let’s get to work!”
Consultant Shuprovo Arko is the collective-impact communications lead for The Asia Foundation in Bangladesh. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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