Healthy meals are a dream come true for garment workers in Bangladesh

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Despite the size and global dominance of Bangladesh’s RMG industry, which claims a global market share of 6.8% and is the second largest exporter after China, studies have shown that the South Asian country had one of the lowest productivity rates per worker in the world. Among the main reasons identified for worker inefficiency is inadequate nutrition, particularly among women, whose performance is further compromised by the impact of traditional unpaid family responsibilities.

Some 2.5 million women, or 60% of RMG’s workforce, play an important role in the performance of a sector that generates 84% ​​of all exports and up to 20% of GDP. UNICEF estimates that “the industry’s approximately 3,500 export-oriented factories are expected to directly or indirectly support the livelihoods of over 25 million people, especially women and children”.

Three years ago, garment worker Sadika Tun Nesa and her younger sister migrated to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, from their home in Satkhira, a southwestern district about five hours away, in search of a better life for themselves and their five members. family.

When they arrived in town, Sadika and her sister were no different from many of their peers, often skipping breakfast, often waiting until the afternoon to eat a high carbohydrate meal – their first meal of the day. Their micronutrient and protein intake was low.

The sisters will quickly learn to sew and will be hired by a large clothing factory in Dhamrai, about an hour from the city.

Snowtex Outerwear Limited, where Sadika and her sister are employed, manufactures and supplies clothing and fashion products to multinational corporations, with popular names such as Columbia Sportswear, North Face, Timberland and Mango depending on the production of its workforce. predominantly female workforce.

In the highly competitive global apparel industry, productivity can be a deciding factor between winners and losers. Top performance is required from RMG workers.

But, as her workload increased, Sadika describes how she struggled to maintain the energy needed to be as productive as the job demanded.

“I often suffered from fatigue, weakness and nausea,” she says. She would soon learn that she was anemic – and she wasn’t the only one.

According to Bangladesh’s National Nutrition Services, anemia – a condition characterized by low levels of hemoglobin in which the blood contains fewer red blood cells – has worsened over time among the country’s female population. The trend was even more severe among female garment workers, 77% of whom are reported to be anemic, which is considerably higher than the national average. prevalence by 41.8%.

Anemia is associated with fatigue, reduced physical activity, impaired cognitive abilities and reduced work productivity, and is most often caused by an inadequate diet.

According to Global Burden of Disease Surveyin Bangladesh, malnutrition is the single most important factor in death and disability combined. Nutritional anemia, along with zinc, iron and iodine deficiencies are the most prevalent micronutrient problems in the population.

During the pandemic, a Bangladeshi NGO, Research Assessment and Development Initiative (READI) has partnered with a Swiss NGO, Global Alliance for Better Nutrition (GAIN), V.F. Corporation and Snowtex Limited Outerwearto implement a Workforce Nutrition Project to help overcome nutritional issues among Snowtex factory workers.

The program was named Strengthening Workers’ Access to Relevant Nutritional Opportunities or SWAPNOa Bengali word meaning dream. Not just a pun, the project would turn out to be a dream come true and a potential lifeline for the garment factory staff.

At the start of the program, Sadika was one of a handful of employees selected to be Pushti Bondhu – influencers or champions who would educate their colleagues on good nutritional practices. They were trained in basic nutrition, food systems, diversified diets and hygiene.

Pushti in Bengali is a word which means nutrition or diet. Bondhu means friend. Due to time constraints during factory working hours, these project champions were assigned to lead the SWAPNO project.

As Pushti Bondhu, Sadika has become a nutritional role model among her colleagues, peers and family. She continues to play a major role in improving the nutritional knowledge of female garment workers at Snowtex, which has led to improved overall health and productivity, which has also had a positive impact at the household level.

These days, Sadika, a devout Muslim, gets up at 5 a.m. for the Fajr prayer, eats a healthy breakfast, and heads to the garment factory, where she works in quality assurance. She has become an advocate of healthy eating behaviors and incorporates them into her life, both at home and at work. She now eats three meals a day and encourages her colleagues to do the same.

Snowtex’s sewing shop comprises a combination of modular systems and busy assembly lines with thousands of employees who appear relaxed, diligent and alert. Due to a variety of management actions, morale is high and the attrition rate is below 5%. When I meet Sadika, she is busy inspecting a down jacket and is energetic and in a good mood. She quickly finishes her work before taking a break for lunch.

Snowtex’s dining room is just as impressive as the sewing room floor, albeit more social. Thousands of people – from the most junior to the most experienced staff – collectively receive the same high-quality, nutritious and safe meals guaranteed by an on-site food laboratory, in a large dining area with open seating.

I watch workers choose from huge drums of fresh food filled with highly nutritious, fortified ingredients, including vegetables, legumes, fish, meat, eggs, fortified rice, oil food enriched with vitamin A and iodized salt, ensuring that they have enough energy. do their jobs effectively while promoting optimal health.

Sadika tells me that she looks forward and enjoys her lunch which is always healthy and filling without slowing her down.

She says she has learned to reduce the proportion of carbohydrates in her meals and has increased the amount of fish and vegetables she eats. She makes sure to include a source of vitamin C in her lunch and follows her meal with an iron folate (IFA) tablet which is provided as a service by the government and has been made readily available to everyone. staff by GAIN.

“We consider it our duty to ensure a healthy life for our workers,” says SM Khaled, Managing Director of Snowtex. “That’s why we came up with the plan to provide a quality lunch. If they eat healthy, they stay in shape, which benefits both the workers and the company.

There is a broad evidence base to support the hypothesis that anemia negatively impacts job performance, while iron intervention can positively impact worker productivity. According to an independent study commissioned by GAIN, the comprehensive package of interventions implemented under the SWAPNO project has the potential to improve anemia rates by up to 32%.

Health investments in factories like Snowtex are paying dividends in the form of increased productivity, better quality products, lower sick days and improved employee morale.

“I may not make a lot of money, but now I know how to stay healthy,” says Sadika, sharing some of the ways the SWAPNO project has changed her eating habits and, by extension, her life.

“I always include a seasonal fruit on my shopping list…I know how much of each nutrient I should buy and eat…I try to educate my family on how to live a better life… This for me is priceless.”

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