Wednesday 6 April 2016

School's In! How Bangladehsi Garment Workers Are Getting An Education

It's very easy to to turn the garment workers of Bangladesh into victims. They are poorly paid and treated, often working in awful conditions and with little in the way of prospects. Oh dear, what a shame. Let's donate to a charity fund and move on.

Of course, the story is much more complex than that, and the people behind that story have hopes, dreams and ambitions beyond the factory floor. Allowing opportunity into the workplace can have surprising benefits.

Sarah Lazarus for The Guardian recently reported on a scheme launched by the Asian University for Women (AUW), that offers garment workers a free education. It can be a huge step forward for women who are expected to spend their lives supporting their families on little money.

The AUW was founded in 2008, with funding coming from The Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation and The IKEA Foundation. It's a regional university, which allows students from 15 countries across India and Asia to attend. The focus, according to founder Kamal Ahmed, is on talent rather than profit. She says:

“...our cardinal principle is to recruit the most talented people, irrespective of background”.

All of which seems fine in principle, but there's still a tricky balancing act to be performed to get female garment workers into college. For one thing, their employers have to be persuaded to keep paying their wages while they are studying. Without that money the women would simply be unable to attend.

In a perverse way, the Rana Plaza collapse has helped the cause. Bangladeshi garment factories have suffered from an awful reputation since April 2013. Letting managers publicly support their workers in such an altruistic manner is a great way to improve their standing. So far, five factories have signed up to the scheme, and 22 workers have made it into this year's intake. Competition was fierce, with over 650 applicants fighting for a place. Let's be clear: this is no giveaway. Applicants need a high school education to make it onto the list in the first place, and the entrance exams are tough. The idea is to inspire and encourage the hidden talent forced into a poorly-paid and unstimulating job due to family and financial pressure.

The other big takeaway from the scheme is the spotlight it puts onto women's education as a whole. Rather than the traditional Bangladeshi view that it's a waste of time to send women to school, there is a major uptick in interest, as Sonia Akter, in her fourth year at AUW discovered:

“When I left my village, members of the community criticised my mother for allowing me to go, but their attitudes are changing because they have seen what I’ve achieved. To visit home, I have to walk from the bus station to the village. It used to take 30 minutes. Now it takes at least two hours because so many people come to talk to me. The same people who used to believe that educating girls was pointless are starting to want the same for their daughters. If I can make female education popular in my village, then I can do it for the whole of Bangladesh.”

Our View: any scheme that makes education more accessible is a very good thing. Giving garment workers the chance to transcend their backgrounds and likely career path is even better. This is a story that has no down side, and shows that even on the factory floors of Bangladesh, there can be hope for a better tomorrow.


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