Skills and Prosperity in the Bangladesh Garment Industry

By Mark Rolls, Senior Manager, Economic Growth at Palladium

Skills and Prosperity in the Bangladesh Garment Industry

Garment factories in Bangladesh are now seeing positive returns from investing in in-house skills training. A new training approach has to date supported 4,000 people into sewing machine operator positions through a unique partnership between major British retailers, garment factories and the market development programme, Sudokkho. This is a win-win situation. In a sector operating within a competitive global apparels market and with an ever-expanding workforce of over four million people, it demonstrates that where firms take up the challenge of investing in skills training, they can boost their productivity whilst unlocking the earning potential of their workforce.

Sudokkho (meaning ‘skillful’ in Bengali) is a five-year programme, funded with UK aid from the UK government and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Sudokkho is implemented by Palladium in a consortium with Swisscontact and the British Council.The programme is testing and scaling-up market-driven, quality skills training systems within the ready-made garments (RMG) sector. Sudokkho’s market system approach aims to support training systems which are industry-led, self-financing and effectively supported by government and the private sector.

The ready-made garments sector in Bangladesh has encountered a shortage of skilled workers since its naissance in the early 1980s. The sector has matured, but productivity levels in RMG factories remain far below that of many other countries, including Cambodia, Turkey, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Low skill levels are one of the main reasons for the low productivity of their manufacturing units, but factory owners are gradually acknowledging the tangible business benefits of upskilling their workforce.

Sudokkho is working in partnership with the leading British clothing retailers Debenhams, New Look and Primark, working through some of their supplier factories to improve the skills set of their sewing machine operators. Bangladesh is a large sourcing base for major British retailers, who are increasingly building strategic partnerships with their supplier factories and are pleased to promote best practice in workforce training. Rather than subsidise training, Sudokkho is offering technical expertise to help firms rethink how they offer training, manage their cost base, and understand the business benefits.

The programme is currently working with 42 garment factories. More than 4,000 people have been trained and over £600,000 has been invested by garments factories in the in-house training model. Sudokkho has introduced a structured curriculum for in-house training with a focus on productivity and quality, with fewer trainees per trainer and new training centre Key Performance Indicators. The pilot programme has demonstrated that the time and expense of training a sewing machine operator is falling: the average duration of training has fallen from an average of 32 days to 20 days, and training costs per trainee have fallen by an average of over 25%.

Eighty per cent of participants in the programme are women, but there are few career progression opportunities for women workers at present, and men tend to dominate supervision roles in the Bangladeshi garments sector. Sudokkho has promoted 129 women into training positions so that they can start to overcome cultural stigma and to progress from sewing operators to training managers, and the programme is planning to facilitate structured supervisor training. The impact of new skills and employment on the lives of poor women and men cannot be overstated. As one recent training graduate reflected, ‘I have been working in this factory for one year. I was a helper. I was sent to the training centre to become an operator [and] completed my training within 15 days. I felt good during the training period. The trainers were very helpful and supportive…. Now, I work well on the floor.’

Sudokkho is helping to show how a different approach to skills programmes can make worker training for firms efficient and sustainable, but there is also a lot to learn. To make training schemes as effective as possible factories need managers who can identify the greater capacity that their staff need, and work with them to train in way that is mutually productive for both worker and factory.

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