The story of Better Work Bangladesh and SQ Group began in March 2015.
Back then, the fledgling local branch of the UN programme was taking its first steps across Bangladesh’s garment sector, the second largest in the world, accounting for 6.5 percent share of the global apparel market.
SQ Group was already a solid entrepreneurial reality in the country. Still, the company felt something was missing in its day-to-day dynamics across the factory floor.
Backed by years of international results, Better Work launched its operations in Bangladesh, confident of its core message that compliance should not be considered a mere obligation, but a business necessity that makes factories more competitive.
This was the philosophy SQ was looking for.
“The methodology and approach of BW is what attracted us,” says Warisul Abid, Chief People Officer, SQ Group. “BW’s training, assessment and advisory components were exactly what we needed. It was crucial for us to work with a programme that could help us reach commonly-shared standards to improve and monitor our performance, especially on social compliance and the social area of the business at large.”
One of the leading apparel manufacturers in the country, SQ Group has been operating for the past 26 years, initially producing knitted sweaters for international buyers and later adding lingerie and shirts to its portfolio.
Its work has been growing in size and quality over two decades. What began with an initial workforce of 150 knitting operators has grown to encompass 18,000 employees producing clothing in the company’s different facilities. All the group’s facilities are currently affiliated with BWB.
“Back in 2015, each brand we worked with had specific methods to assess compliance,” Abid says. “Different organizations used to carry out specific audits. But this was not helping us bring real, sustainable improvement to the way we managed our people and to social compliance.”
Helping each factory develop its own capacity is the ultimate power of Better Work, Abid says, adding the programme doesn’t help factories to face audits, rather it makes them aware of their own responsibilities and prepares them to be held accountable for their own actions.
The group’s SQ Celsius Ltd. shows the success of this factory-based Copernican Revolution.
“Thanks to BWB, workplace communication among our 3,400 workers, management, middle management, associates and operators vastly improved. We have created an environment where people feel free to share their thoughts and suggestions. The factory has eventually become self-reliant in terms of compliance.”
Meanwhile, absenteeism has reduced by 1.5%, worker turnover rate has decreased by 0.5%, and the average contract length has also increased. Workers have become more committed, starting to see career prospects within our organization. These improvements have reflected on the overall company’s productivity.
BWB has conducted a series of trainings and seminars in SQ Celsius Ltd. over the years, touching on supervisory skills enhancement, skill development, grievance mechanisms, communication in the workplace and maternity protection.
Workers say their impact is palpable.
Trimming operator Ayesha Akhter Nazma has been working in SQ Celsius Ltd. for the past nine years. Her husband also works here.
“Since the launch of BWB in our factory, workers have started to increasingly engage in open discussions with the management,” the 28-year-old worker says. “I’ve seen a transformation in the worker-management relationship over the past four years. This helped narrow the communication gap within the factory. It also helped us communicate our demands more clearly.”
Nazma is also a member of the factory’s Participation Committee (PC), the representative worker-management body BW helps establish inside its affiliated factories.
The PC of SQ Celsius Ltd. recently suggested the management improve its drinking water appliances by ensuring the availability of warm, cold and lukewarm water in the factory. Immediate action was taken to meet the workers’ demands. Liquid soap has been added to all restrooms, while electronic hand dryers have replaced overused towels.
Employees have also been lamenting the absence of ATM machines in the factory’s proximity. Following the PC’s request, a new one has been set up in collaboration with a local bank.
Operator Sahanaj Akhter, 28, says she has become the vice-president of the factory’s Safety Committee following BWB trainings.
“Those courses helped me grow both personally and professionally. I am now more confident in communicating with others,” the mother of two says. “We established with the management’s support grievance mechanism procedures to address workplace violence issues, among others. I feel proud to be able to contribute to the efforts to build a happy and safe workplace.”
Akhter proudly says the factory is now also granting “special leave” for those who have suffered a workplace injury. This type of leave doesn’t affect the worker’s regular leave, like sick, casual or annual vacation.
SQ Group’s Abid says the cooperation with BWB has boosted workers’ confidence and put the whole team on the right track.
Still, he sees even larger opportunities the company should seize to further improve its standing. One of them is automation and the related training workers need to minimise the disruption caused by the technological progress across the industry.
The group has already carried out work in this direction. Still, more efforts are needed to transform today’s and tomorrow’s Bangladeshi workforce, Abid says.
BWB and its partners are currently calling on local factories to enhance trainings to prepare workers to face the automation process Bangladesh is witnessing to make the industry sustainable in the long term.
As one of the largest sweater manufacturers in the country, the knitting department of SQ Celsius Ltd. is fully computerised. In the past, one operator used to run a single machine, today the same operator runs ten.
“We guided our workforce through this production change and boosted our training centre to help workers acquire further skills for the new technological environment, eventually creating multitasking operators,” he says. “This, in turn, has improved their employability and earning potential. Those who are not managing to adapt have been moved to different areas of production that still require manual work.”
Operator Md Shajahan Mia says he has seen his factory becoming increasingly efficient thanks to enhanced technology and automation over the years.
He is one of the around 400 workers who have been trained to operate on a fully automated production line. His section’s productivity has increased up to six times following automation, he says.
Following a three-month training, Mia was able to run 12 machines, each producing an average of 300 pieces a day, against a maximum of 10 produced manually. Higher efficiency and productivity means a higher salary, leading the operator to eventually rake in a monthly salary of USD 236 against the previous USD165.
“The factory is a very fast-paced environment. It can be very stressful and, because of this, we can miss out on certain things. But BWB helps us focus on areas that we sometimes overlook amid our hectic activity. Its support changes and adapts to the market’s new demands. It is a strong ally to have to reach new and ambitious market goals,” Chief People Officer Abid says.