Empowering Women Factory Workers
HERproject helps companies like Nordstrom bring financial planning, health education and other life tools to women working in global fashion factories.
By Tessa Trudeau
Each time you go shopping, you make a decision—consciously or not—about the brands you support. These days, with retail goods readily available at just the click of a button, it can be easy to disconnect the things we buy from where they were made—and who made them. But now, more companies than ever are making that connection and using their buying power to drive positive change in the welfare of female workers within global supply chains. "It's important for these factories to know that their clients and buyers care about women's empowerment—that they care about worker well-being," says Chhavi Ghuliani, associate director of HERproject.
In 2007, Nordstrom Product Group (NPG) began a partnership with nonprofit BSR to implement their HERproject initiative in a number of factories in our supply chain around the world. According to HERproject.org, 68 percent of the garment workforce and 45 percent of the textile sector workforce are women. "There's a lot that's unknown about the lives of women in factories, and we try to put women in supply chains on the global agenda to make sure that there's attention placed there," says Ghuliani.
What is known, however, is that the factory conditions female workers face can be complex. Nordstrom Product Group goes beyond its day-to-day work supporting factories' health, safety and human rights standards to specifically support women and help them develop the tools and skills they need to become leaders in their organizations so they can make real progress in their careers and lives. Through interactive programs and classes, HERproject educates women on topics like opening bank accounts and managing money (HERfinance), accessing healthcare (HERhealth) and addressing sexual harrassment (HERrespect). Through Nordstrom's partnership with HERproject, 18,575 people have received these types of training, whether via classes or by learning directly from their peers.
"HERhealth looks at a range of issues that women in factories face, from nutrition to family planning and disease prevention," Ghuliani explains, which enables and empowers them to make medical choices for themselves and take control of their health in a way they haven't been able to before. "HERfinance builds financial capability by helping them manage their wages and build their confidence around making decisions about money," he says, because that's usually not a role women workers have played within their families or communities. "HERrespect aims to build more gender-equal workplaces. Women typically occupy the majority of the low-level, operational positions—so they're doing the sewing and the stitching—whereas if you look at the supervisor-and-above levels, it's almost exclusively men," says Ghuliani. "There are some gender dynamics at play that sometimes lead to harassment against women or in worse cases violence, so we try to build more gender sensitivity by addressing some of these deep-rooted gender and social norms."
Many women who work in factories face challenges due to societal norms. HERproject aims to help with things like balancing work with raising a family and learning to communicate with factory managers, who are often men. "Women have different needs because they have different responsibilities compared to men," says Ghuliani. "They're still—even if they're working full time—responsible for the majority of the work at home," so HERproject helps bring access and resources to women and in turn, provide them with a level of autonomy they haven't previously had. "A lot of their needs have to be met at work because they just don't have time to go seek out services outside of working hours where they spend the majority of their time."
Investing in women is a win-win for factory owners as well because when workers feel empowered, healthier and happier, they are more likely to come to work consistently, call out sick less often and stay at their jobs longer. "We have data that show turnover decreases because a healthier workforce that is also receiving benefits from their employer, such as training on their own health and financial well-being, is less likely to leave to find another employer," explains Ghuliani. This ultimately saves the factory money in the long run. "Error rates also reduce, and on the finance side, when factories switch from cash to paying workers into a bank account—which is safer for them—they have a pretty dramatic reduction in admin costs related to payroll."
At present, 19 percent of NPG products (most recently Nordstrom Signature's line, Cashmere Never Felt So Good) are made in factories where workers have received HERproject training. "It's important to have Nordstrom and other companies like it as part of the conversation so the suppliers realize that this is what multinational businesses are looking for," says Ghuliani. But while many people and companies have begun making more ethical choices when it comes to fashion, there is still a lot of work to be done. As we look at where we are today and where we want to be in the future, this is an area that's a high priority for us. We're in the process of finalizing a new, ambitious goal around our efforts to focus on women's empowerment in our NPG supply chain and how we can give women the tools and skills they need to be successful in work and beyond.