Factory Nurses: A Force for Change in Bangladeshi Workers’ Health

May 14, 2014
  • Marat Yu

    Former Manager, BSR

Marat Yu, Associate, Partnership Development and Research, BSR

On May 12, International Nurses Day, several experts noted one of the biggest challenges in the field today: a lack of adequately trained nurses—an issue that the International Council of Nurses described as a key priority for achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

While governments have been working to address this issue, global companies have a role to play in ensuring that nurses can serve the needs of their supply chain workers. Most countries where global supply chains operate have legal requirements for large employers to provide basic first aid and occupational health and safety support.

In Bangladesh, for instance, ready-made garment (RMG) factories are required to have an onsite clinic with at least one full-time nurse. Because of this legal requirement—and because the fast-growing RMG sector now comprises 13 percent of Bangladesh’s economy—the RMG sector has a particular responsibility to address Bangladesh’s nursing challenge. And that challenge is significant: One report estimates that Bangladesh would need an additional 280,000 nurses to meet international standards.

Through my work implementing BSR’s HERproject in more than 30 Bangladesh factories, I have seen how investments in factory nurses can pay off both for the workers and for the business.

Unfortunately, most factory investments in nurses do little more than meet the letter of the law, meaning that nurses are physically present. To truly realize the potential of factory nurses in Bangladesh, factory managers need to give nurses appropriate training and make them responsible for all of the health needs of workers—not just those related to occupational health and safety. To do this, companies should advocate for and develop standard qualifications for nurses working in the RMG industry, and they should collaborate with industry peers to provide training for nurses that accounts for the unique challenges in factory settings, including general and reproductive health issues, the capacity to deliver counseling or referrals, and an understanding of health-record systems.

Within Bangladesh’s RMG industry, 87 percent of female employees suffer from ailments and diseases, including anemia, poor hygiene, and inadequate pre- and post-natal care. Better nursing resources within these factories would go a long way toward addressing the community’s health issues—particularly for women. While many women are becoming more economically empowered through formal employment in global supply chains, without access to proper healthcare, this employment will not lead to better living standards. These investments also pay off for the company, with higher levels of employee engagement and loyalty, reduced rates of turnover, and reduced absences due to worker illness.

In the next two years, BSR will partner with the Kumudini Healthcare Trust, a nonprofit that operates a nursing school and college in Bangladesh, to pilot an RMG-specific training program for factory nurses. Supported by UKaid, the program is designed for the specific health needs of female workers. In addition to improving the knowledge and capacity of nurses, we will explore how to improve clinic standards in factories. We look forward to working with our member companies and others to improve Bangladesh’s health infrastructure in the effort to create a safe and healthy RMG sector in this country.

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