By Rebecca Webber
Slip off your jeans and check the tag. It may say “Made in Vietnam”, “Made in India,” or “Made in China.” What it doesn’t say is that it was most likely made by a woman.
Women make up the vast majority of garment workers, about 80% worldwide. A few years ago when Gap reviewed its community investment strategy, the company saw an opportunity to help improve the lives of female garment workers.
The company recognized that while the vendors’ factory floor workers were overwhelmingly female, few women advanced into supervisory or management positions. Often, the women lacked the basic education, life skills and technical training needed to take on bigger roles and the opportunities to advance in these areas.
Since 2007, more than 14,000 female garment workers have participated in Gap Inc.’s P.A.C.E. program (the initials stand for Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement), which provides them with the foundational life and technical skills needed to move up in the workplace and better their own lives and the lives of those around them at home and in their communities.
The women start off learning broad-based life skills; the first part of the program offers 65-80 hours of instruction which includes communication, problem-solving and decision-making, time and stress management, general and reproductive health, legal and financial literacy and gender equality. Next comes the opportunity for the women to receive enhanced technical training. Using a combination of paid time off, and their own time, the women generally complete the entire program in eight to 10 months.
The results are immediate, and have an amazing ripple effect.
THE PRIDE OF HER VILLAGE
Take Sujatha, one of three sisters from a small village in India where an educated woman is the exception rather than the rule and rural women with “careers are often a rarity. Sujatha started working on the sewing line in a factory that supplies apparel to Gap and other retailers; after participating in P.A.C.E., she was promoted to supervisor. “She talks to all the other women on her team and takes care of their needs,” explains Sujatha’s bursting-with-pride older sister. “She takes care of everybody.”
“Watching Sujatha makes me want to give a better education to my daughter. I want her dreams to come true,” says her sister. “Sujatha is my younger sister and I want to be just like her.”
Another worker in India, Disha, also sings the praises of the program. “It helps us in solving our problems by informing us about our rights. It will help us address so many of our problems. All workers should get the opportunity to learn like we did.”
P.A.C.E. was designed in partnership with two respected nonprofits: the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and India’s Swasti Health Resource Center. Renowned nonprofit CARE is a key implementing partner. Besides India, P.A.C.E. is currently operating in Cambodia, China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Vietnam. And whenever the program bumps up against real-world obstacles, it adapts.
In Cambodia, for instance, program administrators learned that nearly one in four enrollees couldn’t read or write. The solution: Literacy training was added and now workers who didn’t even know the alphabet can write their names and basic words, and read key words and sentences on factory signage.
“Education of female garment workers is a distinct way our company can support positive, lasting benefits for workers and their communities,” says Gap Inc. Chairman and CEO Glenn Murphy. “Our deep knowledge of the apparel world, our partnerships with manufacturing vendors and local NGOs have allowed us to help make meaningful impact on the lives of thousands of women.”
THE MEASURE OF SUCCESS
Evaluations of the program by ICRW show real results. Enrollees in India and Cambodia report they had better workplace relationships; their communication skills increased by 36 percent and their confidence by 32 percent. In India, 69 percent of the participants said they were saving more money.
“Women’s self-esteem, work efficacy and ability to be a positive influence on the work environment improves” through the program, says Priya Nanda, director of ICRW’s Social & Economic Development Group. “The benefits accrue not only to the women themselves, but are passed on to others around them.”
Factory owners have reaped rewards too. P.A.C.E. graduates are more productive, have lower rates of absenteeism, and are promoted faster than their coworkers who do not participate in the program. At one factory, women who completed the program were promoted nearly five times as often as their fellow workers. One vendor in India, which employs more than 60,000 workers, has promised to extend the program to all its factories and employees by 2020.
“The commitment of vendors to dedicate their internal human resources makes the P.A.C.E. program sustainable and scalable,” says Dotti Hatcher, executive director of P.A.C.E. The goal is to create a self-sustaining program that is implemented by the vendors themselves.
P.A.C.E. won an innovation award from ICRW for its pioneering business model, and in 2011, former President Bill Clinton also saluted Gap Inc.’s approach. “We have got to prove that growth can benefit everybody,” Clinton said at the time. “And it cannot happen unless we do more to make sure women get their fair share of it and that girls can work their way into it.
So take another look at the inside of your jeans. The “Made in Cambodia” tag may be just a label to you, but to a woman garment worker it could be an opportunity to better her life.