Better Work

How are people skills improving working conditions in Indonesia’s apparel factories?

Training in communications for garment factory supervisors yields significant improvements in the quality of working conditions and big gains in productivity.

Feature | 29 September 2016
"Through the training, I feel like I had a certain enlightenment. I came to an awareness about the importance of communication in achieving success" Sudarmi
BOGOR (ILO News) – When Sudarmi became chief supervisor in an Indonesian garment factory she found many of the pressures she was expecting: long hours, physical and mental fatigue and the stress of dealing with surges of demand to meet buyer targets.

But some of the challenges she faced came with a surprisingly personal edge. “I didn’t know how to communicate effectively with my subordinates, let alone inspire them. I sometimes became very aggressive and upset when I face problems at work.”

Sudarmi’s role overseeing the sewing department at a factory in Bogor, West Java, sees her in charge of four supervisors and hundreds of sewing operators in an industry where last minute orders and penalties for failing to deliver on time or with quality issues are common. Much of that pressure falls on the shoulders of factory supervisors.

Adding to the strain is a lack of training. In the garment business it is not uncommon for capable people like Sudarmi to be promoted to positions of authority with very little preparation for leadership. And this deficit can contribute to tension in the workplace. Stressed supervisors are less likely to listen to workers and more likely to shout and bully.

Such behaviour matters. The majority of apparel workers are women and surveys consistently show that harassment and discrimination in factories have a crucial influence on their reported well-being and ability to be effective in their jobs.

Ultimately productivity suffers. Tasks are not divided up effectively and supply lines become unbalanced, with some teams overloaded and others sitting idle.

This impact on the bottom line has been one of the reasons encouraging factory owners to sign up their teams to a Supervisory Skills Training course developed and run by Better Work, a collaboration between the International Labour Organization and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation.

The course, available in seven countries, takes place over three days and aims to educate supervisors of their responsibilities, professional standards and workers’ rights through hands-on exercises, individual reflection and group discussion. In the past two years, 5,850 supervisors, managing approximately 120, 000 workers, have been through the programme.

“We believe that soft skills such as effective communication, motivation of workers and creating a friendly working environment can have a real impact, not only on the quality of life of garment workers, but on the factory floor’s ability to respond to the demands of the industry,” says Maria João Vasquez, programme manager for Better Work in Indonesia.

People have the right to work in environments free of discrimination, harassment and abuse"

Dan Rees, Director Better Work
To test that belief, in 2014, Better Work invited Tufts University to examine the broader impact of their training. According to their study, Supervisory Skills Training: Impact Assessment, the benefits are not only confined to workers. A key finding was that training of female supervisors resulted in productivity increases of an average of 22 per cent, when compared to a control group.

For Dan Rees, who heads up the Better Work programme globally, the good results for businesses are welcome, but not the whole story. “Ultimately it’s a question of rights. People have the right to work in environments free of discrimination, harassment and abuse and in a workforce that is predominantly women, these issues are prevalent. This training it clearly making a difference is proof positive that decent working conditions benefit business as well as workers.”

In Bogor, for Sudarmi, that difference was profound: “Through the training, I feel like I had a certain enlightenment. I came to an awareness about the importance of communication in achieving success. The top management, junior managers, supervisors, and sewing operators are not machines. We carry out more than just our jobs, but we also interact with one another.”

Graduates of the course are encouraged to spread the lessons at their place of work. Sudarmi gathered all the supervisors and discusses possible methods of improvement to work performance and productivity. And, she began to see a new side to those workers she supervised:

“I used to be less sensitive to the problems they encounter… I realized that some sewing operators have weaknesses in their sewing skills, which may have led them to feel frustrated. I conducted various discussions with my fellow supervisors, and we decided to organize a training on sewing skills to enhance the skills of the operators,” Sudarmi explained.