SWAPNO Stories

How the SWAPNO Project turned a Challenge into an Opportunity

Posted on 21 May, 2017

The SWAPNO project stands committed not only to providing an episode of employment for extreme poor women during project duration, but also to promoting employability beyond the project, and to ease the transition from safety net employment to market driven employment.

While most of the poor in Bangladesh are destined to informal employment – and predominantly as own-account subsistence entrepreneurs since waged employment opportunities for them are scarce – there are signs that the labour market for women is undergoing a major transition. The proportion of women in paid employment has doubled in just three years. This expansion is largely explained by an increase in jobs requiring a higher level of skills than the low-paid employment poor women have traditionally been engaged in.

The rapid growth of the readymade garment (RMG) industry here stands out as a main factor of change. There are currently some 5,000 RMG factories with around 4 million people employed. Most of them are women, and of the sewing machine operators eight out of ten are women. This expanding sector of the economy is actually transforming Bangladesh from an aid-dependent to a trade-dependent country. The RMG industry represents over 80 percent of the country’s total export earnings – at a value of around $28 billion in 2015/16 – and the industry is set to continue growing, requiring another 1.5 million workers by year 2021.

Inclusive growth is aSWAPNO Project turned a Challenge into an Opportunity central theme in UNDP’s human development approach, which is critical for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Inclusive growth implies that the poor do not only benefit from economic development, but are also able to contribute to it. The RMG industry demands skilled and semi-skilled workers and the extreme poor women participating in the SWAPNO project are nowhere near to possessing these skills. But some of them were willing to learn, and to take the leap of faith of leaving their home village for far away factory work.

This skills development journey has not been free from hitches. It was important to negotiate job placements before starting any skills training. However, it turned out that the training conducted did not match the demand of the factory that had offered employment. A search began for another employer. The company Ecofab finally offered employment to the SWAPNO women trained as sewing machine operators, but some of the women fell through in the skills test.

As this first training, which was conducted locally in Kurigram district, did not fully match with industry demand, it prompted SWAPNO to approach Ecofab with a proposal that they set up their own training centre, to ensure that training was fully customized to the company’s requirements. Ecofab has now set up such a training centre for rural poor women at their factory in Gazipur. SWAPNO in turn committed to enrol more women for training, with aptitude screening. A Memorandum of Understanding has been negotiated with Ecofab for training of SWAPNO beneficiary women at the new training centre, with Ecofab ensuring regular employment as sewing machine operators for all women who successfully complete the two-month training course.

SWAPNO covers the trainees’ costs during the first month of basic training, while Ecofab will pay salary above minimum wage level for the second month of on-the-job training. An important objective of this partnership is to explore a skills training model for the employment of underprivileged women that could be replicated and scaled up in the RMG industry.

SWAPNO Project turned a Challenge into an OpportunityThe industry being able to make a perfect fit of training with its recruitment demand through its own training facilities has the potential of being a best-practice model. An apparent challenge was turned into an opportunity to change the way training is conducted.

Working conditions in RMG factories are often poor, with low pay, long working hours and lack of leave. As SWAPNO is implemented as a joint UNDP-ILO programme, the decent work agenda takes centre stage. SWAPNO links up to job placement only in factories that comply with the Bangladesh Labour Act. Ecofab, as one of the factories joining ILO’s Better Work Programme, offers medical and childcare facilities during work hours, provides paid maternity leave and earned leave, has accident insurance for workplace injuries and employer-paid group health insurance in place, limits overtime, paying double wage rate for overtime hours.

Factory safety is another concern in an industry that has been driven by short-sighted profit motives. Devastating factory fires and the Rana Plaza building collapse were belated wake-up calls resonating in the entire RMG industry. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was created in the immediate aftermath of the Rana Plaza building collapse that led to the death of more than 1100 people. The Accord has imposed legally binding agreements to train staff in work safety issues, to put required safety measures in place and to allow factory inspections of them. This has brought about a much safer RMG industry, with Ecofab being one of the signatories.

Women’s labour force participation in Bangladesh has traditionally been restricted to low-paid work at the low productivity end. This is changing. The RMG sector, accounting for three-quarters of female formal employment, offers women unparalleled access to gainful employment. This has contributed to the sustained pace of poverty reduction that Bangladesh has been able to achieve throughout the past two decades, it is relaxing constraints that women face and slowly breaking entrenched gender norms on what women can do and be.

The SWAPNO project is part of this process. There is still a long way to go towards gender equality in Bangladesh, but SWAPNO has proved that barriers can be negotiated and obstacles become system changing opportunities.

Written by: Göran Jonsson