Major Karim Murtaza is the General Manager of Human Resources at Lenny Fashions Ltd, a garment factory located in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The textile and clothing industries in the country are among the main sources of Bangladesh’s developing economy. Exports of textiles and garments represent 80% of foreign exchange earnings.
In 2014, GAIN started working in the garment sector in Bangladesh through its Workforce Nutrition programme, which aims to improve the nutritional status of workers by providing improved lunches, promoting iron-folic acid supplementation and peer-to-peer communication to inform workers of the benefits associated with a good diet. This approach has led to significant reductions in anaemia among female workers.
To understand the importance of this programme, it is necessary to explain the typical life of a garment worker in Bangladesh. “A worker’s life is quite robotic and repetitive, and gender equality isn’t a given in Dhaka. Women are the main caregivers and the weight of the household relies on them. For example, if someone is sick at home, then the mother/wife/sister will not come to work. This affects their entire work line in the factory. Absenteeism rates tend to be very high in garments factories,” explained Major Murtaza.
Talking more specifically about Lenny Fashions Ltd, Major Murtaza added: “Before we started the nutrition programme at least one worker per hour would come to the medical room to complain about a migraine, fatigue or stomach pains. Our doctor told us that these symptoms were due to poor dietary habits. It is customary for workers to have a very light breakfast before coming to work (maybe a biscuit and a cup of tea), as they would rather sleep or have extra time to provide for the family than take care of their own well-being.”
Evidence workforce nutrition programmes shows that malnutrition has negative effects on work capacity and business growth. As Major Murtaza explained, “An unhealthy worker affects an entire line of work. On average, there are 80-90 workers in a line, so if one is sick and can’t come to work, the entire production chain is affected”.
When asked about his role in the factory, Major Murtaza replied: “As the General Manager for Human Resources, after analysing the whole situation, I decided that we had to do something for our workers. I told myself that if I can convince the management team that proper nutrition will not only benefit the workers, but also the company itself – by raising our delivery rate and customers satisfaction - then I have good chances of having this programme accepted and seeing real change in the factory”.
An unhealthy worker affects an entire line of work. On average, there are 80-90 workers in a line, so if one is sick and can’t come to work, the entire production chain is affected.
However, it did not start as smoothly as expected. “The first day was a disaster! The course leaders were speaking too softly and not even making eye contact with the other workers in the room. I realised that - in order to have a successful outcome - we needed to work on their communication and facilitation skills. Therefore, I stepped in and cancelled the course and trained the leaders on how to communicate effectively.”
Once the leaders learned how to pass on the messages in an engaging and understandable way, Major Murtaza had to address a series of other issues, such as attendance and motivation. “We wanted to ensure that as many workers as possible would attend this training course. When we first started, 10-20% of the workers were not attending and would instead continue to work as they wanted to complete their hours. So, we created an additional team of workers whose job was to collect all the other people and bring them to the training and ensure that they would participate.”
Workers in the factory were particularly worried that - by attending the training - they would lose hours of work, therefore an important income for them and their family. “We had to explain that the course was given to them as an hour of extra time, assuring that they would not lose any money. This was an essential incentive for them to attend” added Major Murtaza.
He highlighted that, over time, course attendance increased significantly. “Little by little we went from 20 people not taking the training to merely 2 or 3. After a few months, it became clear that more and more people were taking part in the course and less and less people took leave. An important achievement for us was the moment when medical reports started showing 0 cases of sickness reported in a day”.
Major Murtaza proudly shared that “Once the training course was completed, the workers wanted more. We started pitching the idea to other factories nearby. Education and knowledge-sharing brought workers together. They supported each other, giving one another advice about how to improve their overall health. Their motivation changed drastically, and – in the past year – we registered almost no complaints and no issues from workers. Even their attitude towards the management team changed with both sides co-operating for the company’s success”.