Professor Drusilla Brown has led a research team at Tufts University in Massachusetts, USA in the past 20 year that conducts randomized controlled field experiments on various interventions. They are designed to improve conditions of work in global supply chains, particularly in industries such as garment manufacturing dominated by women.
Tufts’ Labor Lab’s work ranges from social compliance to health interventions, for example what the impact of empowerment training is and what the role of supervisor support is when it comes to reproductive health knowledge as part of the Walmart Women in Factories Program. FashionUnited spoke with Professor Brown about how the interventions are conducted, what some of the (surprising) outcomes were, and the impact of Rana Plaza and Covid-19 on social compliance.
FashionUnited: How do you go about the interventions, are they self-designed?
Drusilla Brown: It could go both ways: Either somebody else designs them and we evaluate them or we are doing our own projects. For example, the one in Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh and India was our own design and we worked closely with our delivery partner and the Better Work program by the ILO.
What were some of your findings?
Well, we found that whenever wages rise, productivity rises. When workers are more comfortable (also in terms of work safety and environment), it makes them more productive. But at the same time, factories were not exploiting their greatest potential. For example, due to social compliance, factories have to shorten the work day to 8 hours plus 2 hours overtime. This would mean that they could add a second work shift but they do not. Instead, they set their production target with one work shift only, hence they are missing opportunities.
What were the reasons given for running only one shift?
When we reported our findings back and asked ‘Why don’t you just go to two work shifts?’, the answer was that it is too complicated. The factory managers just did not manage to organise two shifts when ideally, factory capacities should run for 23 hours a day with 1 hour for maintenance. The one factory who succeeded had one group of workers starting at 4 am and productivity was low in the first two hours and a whole lot of workers quit. Though night shift is harder, the alternative would be longer working hours.
What about some other surprising findings?
We had one intervention where pay incentives were introduced at a factory as an experiment: bonuses were paid to increase productivity. What we found was that it actually pushed accidents and injuries and also sexual harassment. The latter happened because it turned into a kind of ‘quid pro quo’ system where the line supervisor or manager responsible for determining if a worker should get a bonus would report that a worker had met the target but only if the worker would go out with them or would provide other favours.
The learning here was to combat this practice with a system of accountability, in other words, making sure that the supervisor is not the one to decide if the worker gets the bonus. In addition, the factory also needs to send a strong message (through posters and other communication) that sexual harassment is not tolerated.
What about training programs for women workers, do they pay off?
There is certainly a positive effect from women’s empowerment training but there is a gap between classroom learning and the actual factory floor when it comes to training women to be supervisors. The problem is that they don’t want to take over the supervisor job even though they do well in the training program. There, they use state-of-the art communication techniques and an open dialogue whereas in the factories, the standard operating procedure is abusive. So women workers don’t want to do it once they get promoted. The learning here is that you have to change the culture of supervision as well and promote a more humane way; in fact, that is a new project that we are starting.
And what is the buyers’ role when it comes to social compliance?
Well, buyers need to shoulders some of the burden. If you want better social compliance, you need to be prepared to pay for it. Buyers don’t have to pay a lot more, not even per piece, but they have to supply more stable orders. Otherwise, factories are forced to take on any work they can get, from different sources, just to make ends meet and that can mean that factories have a lot of load at certain times, more than they can take.
Has Rana Plaza made things easier in terms of social compliance?
In 2000 when I first started, there were only a small number of brands (like Nike and Gap for example) who did anything. Now, it is everybody, but not necessarily because of Rana Plaza. The incident was a big factor for Bangladeshi factories but it did not get applied so much to other sourcing countries.
What about the Covid pandemic, what is the impact here?
What happened in the wake of the pandemic was that many buyers cancelled orders or did not even pay for what was delivered, at least initially, then many of them stepped back in. Overall, it was very revealing for them and they were reminded of the 08/09 financial crisis when sales just collapsed and they tried to sell as much as they could. That was the memory most buyers had and that is why they moved quickly and interrupted their supply chains. Basically, the pandemic exposed tangible evidence of what we have been finding: Social compliance depends on the buyers, their participation.Photos: 1) Clean Clothes Campaign, 2) Tufts University; graphs: Tufts Labor Lab