Some of the international brands and retailers, that have a good sourcing base in India, are supporting the Indian apparel factories workforce with their noble initiatives. And one of them is the British value-for-money retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S), a 138-year-old organisation. Its POWER programme – Providing Opportunities to Women for Equal Rights – has had far-reaching impacts not only on women, but on their households and communities.
Since its initial pilot phase in 2016, 36,436 women have benefited through the programme in leading Indian apparel manufacturing hubs – Bengaluru (Karnataka), Gurugram and Manesar (Haryana). The initiative was paused from March 2020 due to Covid restrictions but has now resumed on a bigger scale and kicked off during International Women’s Day. Now POWER 1 will reach out to 14 factories where at least 100 workers each are employed (Total 1400); Peer trainers-14 (1 in each factory), while POWER 2 (a pilot that M&S is implementing in 2 factories) plans to reach out to 400 workers in total (200 in each factory). The aim will be to scale up in the next phase.
In an exclusive discussion with Nidhi Dua, Head of India & Sri Lanka Region, Marks & Spencer India, Apparel Resources explored various aspects of this women-centric initiative.
Concept of POWER…
Sharing details about this programme and motivation for the same, Nidhi told Apparel Resources, “Around 75 per cent of the workers within the global textile, clothing and footwear industry are women. Unfortunately, we know violence, exploitation, sexual harassment and other forms of abuse of female garment workers are pervasive problems. To address these industry-wide issues, we’ve worked in partnership with like-minded stakeholders since 2016 on programmes in India promoting gender equality and creating safe environments for female workers in their place of work. They also focus on community outreach, positively affecting social norms for the prevention of gender discrimination and violence and equitable practices in the communities around factories.”
The intervention aimed at bringing changes in the demand side by ensuring that the men and women constituting the workforce of the targeted factories are aware and sensitised of their rights and responsibilities.
The interventions on the supply side included facilitating process changes including establishing and strengthening systems such as ensuring a functional internal committee (IC), improving empowerment process and grievance redressal management systems, introducing gender-sensitive policies and practices.
Staff at all levels participated in the programme in different capacities…
The key leadership and the senior management personnel of all the factories were first sensitised about the cause and then included in designing the programme rollout and its specific timelines. They were a part of institutionalising the best practices and accountability mechanisms. While the middle management facilitated the training with the workers and integrated it within the organisation’s induction training module for new employees.
“Workers are an indispensable part of the ongoing production process in a factory. The biggest challenge has been to motivate and convince the factory shopfloor supervisors and production personnel to spare workers’ time spent on production processes to training,” said Nidhi and she further added that more than 30,000 workers, senior and mid-level managers and supervisors (including men and women) are trained. They have improved knowledge on issues of gender equality, sexual harassment, violence against women and grievance redressal in the factory.
Institutional mechanisms are now conducive and gender-equitable in the target factories that address the grievances of women factory workers with better grievance handle mechanisms in place, providing learning and policy recommendations to target factories for promoting gender equality.
Looking at the positive outcome of the programme, few more brands are also coming forward for this as Nidhi asserted, “A number of brands have also outreached, so hopefully together we would have a larger outcome.”
“Research shows that gender diversity benefits a manufacturing organisation through improved ability to innovate, higher return on equity, and increased profitability,” she concluded.
Actionable steps on ground level
The training sessions were divided into six modules of one hour each and it covered understanding gender stereotypes, gender discrimination and violence against women, safe working place, understanding sexual harassment at public and workplace, provisions of the POSH Act and its implementation. Training modules were facilitated in an interactive manner using role plays, group sessions, theatre performances (nukkad natak), statue theatre, video films and experiential sharing. The project has equipped many workers as champions within their workspace. The training modules, posters and visuals were all designed and displayed in four languages (English, Hindi, Kannada, and Tamil).
Factory policies of participating factories were reviewed and necessary recommendations for a safe and decent workplace were provided. The project also had steps like career progression for women workforce and community intervention. Gender Week was also organised in the factories.
The strategy to achieve the desired targets can be divided into three parts: Engagement, Accountability, and Responsiveness. There are various partners in this exercise like Apparel Export Promotion Council (AEPC); Change Alliance; Swasti; and Apparel, Made-Ups & Home Furnishing Sector Skill Council (AMHSSC).
Engagement: A baseline study and factory profiling was conducted to understand the working condition in the factories, create factory and workers’ profiles as well as compliance with the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) Act, 2013. A series of training sessions were held with the male and female workers and management on topics such as gender stereotypes, roles, behaviour and attitude of men and women, and gender equality before intensive training on the POSH Act, its meaning and provisions. The project focused on breaking the norms/culture of silence by women.
Accountability: Peer Trainers were identified through a three-layered process based on their response, a list by factory management and finally through focused group discussions/face-to- face interactions. Using the Training-the-Trainers model, these selected Peer Trainers further trained the workforce in the factories. The policy of ‘Do No Harm’ and ‘No Retaliation’ to complainants was also initiated.
The Internal Committees (ICs) of the factories were made to respond and redress to the cases of sexual harassment. At the same time, to make the internal grievance registering and redressal mechanism easily accessible and user-friendly, an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) based system has been set up in all these factories. This system provides options for all types of harassment complaints including verbal, physical, sexual and payment related with an assurance on confidentiality and job security.
Benefits of POWER
- Safety of workers at workplace
- Decrease in absenteeism resulting in better capacity utilisation
- Increased productivity
- Decreased rate of attrition resulting in reduced HR hiring cost and legal cost
- Alignment with brands’ contribution to SDGs and BHR resulting in strong vendor relationship
- Brand‐building and reputation
36,436 women benefited from the initial pilot phase of the programme in leading Indian apparel manufacturing hubs Bengaluru, Gurugram and Manesar