Women between the ages of 18 to 25 often comprise the vast majority of developing world workers making products for export to the developed world. Much of this work is performed in environments where access to information about reproductive health, as well as critical health services, is lacking. Moreover, factory managers often question the value of investing financial resources in health programs due to high turnover and the perception that young, unmarried women workers are not sexually active and thus are not at risk for reproductive health problems. Despite the challenges presented by this reality, we set out to leverage our unique position to improve the general and reproductive health of women workers along global supply chains.
After an initial research phase in 2006, BSR's women's health initiative—known as HERproject (Health Enables Return)—is now focused on testing innovative models for delivering health training, services and more to factory-based women workers in China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Vietnam. With ongoing funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, this model coordinates health training pilot projects that are implemented by local NGOs, which are compensated for their services by participating companies. BSR acts as a facilitator of these partnerships, catalyzing corporate action to address the unique health needs of women workers while simultaneously supporting the development of grassroots NGOs. Our model is further enhanced by the quantitative acumen of BSR's primary project partner, the Extending Service Delivery (ESD) initiative, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
ESD, through a landmark return-on-investment study in a Bangladeshi factory, found that for every US$1 invested in women's health training and services factories reaped a return of US$3 in the form of higher productivity, reduced absenteeism and lowered turnover.
To help BSR member Nordstrom achieve similar results, we recently launched a series of pilots for the company in five factories in China. Our goal is two-fold: to educate young, female factory workers on women's health issues with a focus on HIV/AIDS, and to measure and evaluate any changes in productivity, absenteeism and turnover during the pilot period. In addition, through the program, three to five percent of the female workforce are educated on specific health matters such as diabetes and breast cancer screenings. In turn, the trained women teach the rest of the workforce, empowering the new peer educators through leadership opportunities. Pilot planning is well underway in Vietnam, India and Pakistan as well.
This initiative has elicited an overwhelmingly positive response from our membership and beyond—confirmation that our strategic, innovative approaches can offer value to businesses while also advancing social well-being. In June of 2008, a workshop, held in Vietnam, brought together 60 factory managers, brand representatives, and NGOs to talk about women's health in factories and the HERproject model. At the end of 2008, HERproject will be active in 18 factories and with 10 brands.