This New Program Gives Bangladesh Garment Workers a Way Out

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This New Program Gives Bangladesh Garment Workers a Way Out

By Jessica Binns, Apparel Senior Editor - 12/13/2016
The apparel manufacturing industry is credited with raising standards of living in impoverished Asian countries such as Bangladesh, yet the wages remain shockingly low by Western standards and there's little opportunity for any sort of career advancement. To address issues of social mobility and educational equality, a new initiative run by the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Chittagong and backed by sponsors including the Levi Strauss Foundation and the IKEA Foundation give garment workers from several garment factories the opportunity to leave their jobs and pursue higher education through the Pathways to Promise program.

Bangladesh employs more than 3 million women in the garments manufacturing industry, many of whom have had only a few years of schooling. "Those who have completed secondary school face the great pressure of poverty, particularly if one or both parents are deceased or if other siblings require financial assistance," says Pathways to Promise program director Andrew Jones. "As long as society devalues women and their aspirations to fulfill their potential, Pathways for Promise will be fighting an uphill battle to reach the latent talent which is now hidden behind sewing machines and grueling work hours." 

In January 2016, 22 women walked away from their jobs at factories including Ananta, Giant Group, Knit Concern, Mohammadi Group, Youngone, Pou Chen, Simba Fashions and Sunman Group whose clients include H&M and VF Corp. to participate in the Pathways to Promise program. That number now stands at more than 100, including more than 30 factory workers in addition to 70 other young women from the Rohingya ethnic minority group, Afghan women from conflict zones and daughters of Grameen Bank borrowers.

According to Jones, participating students spend 20 hours per week in the classroom, which is primarily focused on academic English language communication skills, critical thinking, leadership development and presentation skills.  The core curriculum also includes mathematics and is supplemented by a robust extracurricular program of eight to 10 hours that includes activities ranging from community service and karate to IT and social enterprise.

What's more, students receive up to two hours of personalized one-on-one academic mentoring each week and have access to the writing center and math & science center for additional expert academic support. A social mentoring pastoral care system is available for all Pathways students, and senior program participants take an active role in the mentoring and support of the less experienced Pathways students.    

The Pathways to Promise English immersion program lasts one year, after which students enter AUW's pre-collegiate bridge program, the Access Academy, to achieve a common foundation in language and composition, calculus, world history, computers, and critical thinking before enrolling in the rigorous AUW undergraduate program.

Upon successful completion of Access Academy, students will begin the undergraduate coursework with a range of support services such as a faculty advisor, the writing center or math & science Center, and peer tutoring, says Jones. Pathways students will continue to be paired with a peer mentor who helps them navigate academic resources and extra-curricular opportunities.
The annual cost for one scholarship is $15,000 per student, which is fully funded by the IKEA Foundation, Levis Strauss Foundation and other sponsors. Students receive their books and school supplies from AUW. Even better, the factories continue to pay the former workers their wages as they study in the program.

Encouraging workers to pursue educational opportunities could end up benefiting the factories in the long run beyond boosting their global image. "Many of the students have expressed interest in returning to their factories in leadership positions to help drive change within the industry for the better," says Jones. "Other students have goals to continue with their education to pursue a master's degree, or enter other professional fields such as teaching or public health." 

AUW hopes enrollment numbers will continue to grow. For the moment, however, a few factors are keeping women from taking the plunge. Beyond simple lack of awareness about Pathways to Promise, the majority of garments workers haven't completed enough schooling to enroll in the program, which requires a secondary education in order to be prepared. "Pathways is not at all going to the root of the problem about education in Bangladeshi society," explains Jones. "Instead we are attacking the problem of talented people being trapped in a position that does not suit their abilities."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle, however, is the lack of systemic buy-in from garments manufacturers. "If factory owners want to prevent their workers from applying, it's difficult for us to reach those workers," adds Jones. "The January cohort had one worker apply independently of her factory. She heard about the program and contacted AUW admissions herself. 

"If she hadn't been accepted and her factory owner found it, she could have been exposed to really terrible treatment," Jones continues.
Investing in women and girls makes economic as well as social sense. According to the United Nations Girls Education Initiative, there's evidence that an educated young woman will reinvest 90 percent of her future income in her family and in turn, her community.

"AUW believes that the Pathways for Promise program is empowering young women with an education that not only strengthens their own future but also invests in their communities and our global economy," says Jones.