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Uniqlo's Factory Worker Empowerment Project yields first results

By Simone Preuss

Jun 15, 2016

Washing our hands with soap, cleaning fruits and vegetables before consumption and making sure water is clean and fit to drink are habits that have become second nature to us. We even teach our children these basics from a young age onward to make sure they remain healthy and happy. But what if this knowledge is missing due to a lack of basic education? Poor health follows poor hygiene and poor nutrition, yet this could easily be avoided.

Japanese fast fashion retailer Uniqlo wants to tackle this issue and launched a women’s line featuring traditional Bangladesh clothing motifs, sold in 14 markets worldwide, that funded its Factory Worker Empowerment Project, started in April last year in Bangladesh. It has proven successful, and the company has as of this month extended the program with the Batik Motif collection for men and women to Indonesia, another major garment producer for the Fast Retailing subsidiary. The project aims to provide educational support for female garment workers and helps them acquire a range of living skills in the areas of basic nutrition, hygiene and healthcare.

Poor nutrition and hygiene make many women miss work

Women and girls in garment-producing countries suffer especially from a lack of basic nutrition and hygiene and it is not uncommon for them to miss school, college or work because of menstruation. Using sanitary pads is not something that comes naturally and it is this lack of basic training in hygiene that Uniqlo's Factory Worker Empowerment Project wants to improve.

"The main reason why my coworkers had to leave work early was the failure to use sanitary napkins. After the training, all of us use them," says 23-year-old Sathi proudly whose job is quality control at a Bangladesh garment factory.

"I learned a lot from the training on how to maintain good hygiene, how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and learned about my body and menstruation. The number of women taking sick leave has decreased dramatically," says another young garment worker.

To date, 12,158 women have received training on health and hygiene in Bangladesh. The result is a 36 percent reduction in absentee rates, an investment that has already paid off for the garment factories involved.

The workers' general health should also improve as the project tackles basic nutrition as well: "I didn't understand the importance of a balanced diet. I thought I was eating properly. I didn't think eating different vegetables mattered as long as I had rice. I now eat healthier," admits Sathi.

And this extends not only to the women workers but also their families as they are bringing good habits home: "After the training, many of my habits changed. Now I wash my hands with soap. I learned the importance of washing vegetables before cutting and eating them. Unlike before, I now boil drinking water," says another garment worker.

A novelty is also the confidence with which these women address questions of personal hygiene and nutrition; there is no feeling of shame involved any more or any guilt for doing something for themselves. "I hope that these things will become second nature to all women in Bangladesh through programs like this," concludes one young woman.

The Batik collection consists of eight items, ranging from shirts in sensible patterns for men to tunics, shirts and dresses for women, retailing from 29 US dollars to 39 US dollars. The beautiful batik patterns are original motifs that were jointly created by Uniqlo and a designer recommended by the Indonesia Batik Foundation.