Nazma had seen the technology before, but she didn’t know how it worked.
“I have never run a tablet like this, and I have never used a touch phone,” she says of the training in digital technology she received as a sewing operator at AKH Knitting & Dyeing Factory, a garment manufacturer in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Nazma is part of a cohort of female garment workers in Bangladesh who are participating in upskilling workshops as part of a new initiative from the H&M Foundation. The program began as a way to provide emergency relief for garment workers in Bangladesh affected by COVID-19. In 2020, the pandemic shutdown left some 1 million garment workers in the country out of a job. The economic impact was particularly devastating because Bangladesh is the second-largest garment and textile industry in the world after China.
But the challenges facing the industry and its mostly female employees long predate the pandemic. The increasing use of automation and digital technology means millions of workers — including women like Nazma — risk losing their jobs in the near future. This is especially true in Bangladesh, where the ready-made garment (RMG) sector is one of the largest contributors to the country’s GDP, and where four out of five of the industry’s unskilled workers are girls and women.
As a result, the H&M Foundation has expanded its initiative from emergency relief to include both “soft-skill training,” such as problem-solving, organization, and e-communication, and “hard-skill training” in digital technology so female employees can be promoted to managerial roles or multi-machine operators.
For Shoma, another employee at AKH, the training she received as part of this initiative has alleviated anxiety over losing her job.
“From now onward, the methods taught to us that we will have no worries when it comes to working,” she says. “We can work on what we have learned. There will be no fear in the mind.”
As the first woman in her family to be employed outside the home, Shoma says working at the garment factory has given her a sense of independence, dignity, and voice — in addition to helping her provide financial support for her household.
The digital gender divide is one of many ways that girls and women are held back from achieving their full potential and fully participating in society. In fact, according to the UN’s International Labour Organization, the rate of participation in the global labor force is only 49% for women compared with 75% for men. Bridging the gender gap in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is a crucial way for girls and women to expand their employment opportunities. Only 35% of STEM students in higher education globally are women, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Gender bias prevents many girls from entering these fields. In fact, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that 70% of people surveyed across 34 countries associate STEM fields with men.
In Bangladesh, where much of the female labor force is employed by textile and garment factories, the H&M Foundation is empowering the next generation of female garment workers through education in technology and communication. Importantly, this initiative is also showing other companies what investing in gender equality can look like.
For both Nazma and Shoma, access to education and technology has given them a better understanding of their value, their potential — and their rights as women and employees.