As part of the first series of GBL Access, the Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Good Business Lab, Prof. Anant Nyshadham had a conversation with Charles Bodwell, the International Labour Organization's (ILO) Enterprise Specialist for East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific region. He serves as the regional advisor in 25 countries on matters of entrepreneurship, small business development and government policy (related to it), as well as soft skills training of workers in factories.
ILO’s support for factories during COVID-19
Talking about the ILO’s ready-to-use guides for garment factories to build resilience during and after COVID-19, Bodwell said that they were created to provide easy access and quick assistance to factories to survive the crisis. While he hoped that they were helpful to factories, he reflected that due to their open access, it was not possible to know how many factories had actually used and benefited from them. Nyshadham agreed, and remarked that the alternative—a hands-on approach to assistance programs—while much more effective and allowed for the measurement of impact, was difficult to proliferate as widely and quickly. Striking a balance between the two, ILO’s learning hub requires all users to register, allowing the organization to track how many people are interested in the offering, and in which modules. Bodwell appreciated that it allowed them to reach their audience to obtain feedback and to learn how it impacted them.
The ILO has also released Factory Improvement Toolsets (FIT) which were developed based on inputs from workers, factories, and non-governmental organizations. At the heart of the program is Bodwell’s strongly held belief that “Good management, good labor practices and good environmental practices go hand in hand.” The FITs were developed, with the support of the Swedish government, to substitute expensive expert advisory services for factory improvement. These self-use resources guide firms on how to run their factories in their own best interest, and in a responsible manner.
Talking about the inequalities within the supply chain and between different stakeholders within factories, Nyshadham pointed out that the pandemic “interacts with the pre-existing issues” and wondered if it will only result in further widening of gaps, or whether it will present an opportunity to change things for the better. Bodwell believed that the COVID-19 crisis highlighted the unfavourable conditions and balances in the industry, and predicted that some good change may come out of it, but could not be sure about it as everybody was intent on getting back to business. “It would be nice if it was back to a better business,” he shared.
The future of work
Reflecting on how the now ubiquitous ‘Work from Home’ arrangement most of us are familiar with was not an option for factory workers and laborers in many industries, Nyshadham wondered if this shock would push more such labor-intensive industries to innovate and start making some of their work remote. Bodwell remarked that in the one year after COVID-19, the world adopted more technologies in everyday work than it may have done in the ten years prior to it. He predicted that when the pandemic ends, a lot of jobs would never require every one of their employees to come to office every day. This was not restricted to high-level knowledge workers alone, he noted, quoting the example of calls centre workers in the Philippines now working out of their homes.
But he was quick to remind that a lot of jobs would indeed continue to require their workers to turn up at work - workers in factories and restaurants, among other lower-paying jobs. “We haven’t changed the system in a way that addresses [the] growing inequality,” he said. Nyshadham agreed, and pointed out that the jobs at the bottom of the pyramid had hardly witnessed any positive change in many decades. Hence, during COVID-19, these workers were forced to choose between exposing themselves to the virus and losing their livelihood.
“We people been doing really low-skilled mechanical work [in factories] for many years because we have nimble fingers,” Bodwell observed. Despite being tough and having long working hours, these jobs provide the opportunity to work in the formal sector for millions of workers in developing countries. “But I think that could be reaching an end,” he propounded, as many industries start adopting advanced technologies to automate some of the manual work.
Why everybody is betting on soft skills
The importance given to training workers in soft skills by ILO and companies in labor-intensive industries has to be viewed in light of this. Workers in the near future will likely be required to not just operate a machine, but be able to recognize when it malfunctioned and be able to correct it, as well as work together in teams, among other things. Nyshadham called it “the human part of work” which could complement a machine. While this kind of work could be more enriching, Bodwell warned that it would also require fewer people. This could mean the loss of employment for many low-skilled workers, particularly women.
“Rich countries may perhaps come up with some ways of guaranteed minimum wages or other welfare schemes [in the case of fewer livelihood opportunities]. But I work in a lot of countries in which that really is not an option, and probably isn't an option on the horizon either,” he stated. Drawing from the arguments made by macro-economists, Nyshadham reassured that when millions of such workers lose their jobs, they could soon get integrated into other kinds of jobs; maybe from their homes! To make that possible, developing countries have to be prepared for such an eventuality by asking, “What more can the economies of Cambodia, Bangladesh, and India do with the workers that were formerly employed in this high labor-intensive area,” Bodwell suggested.
While the answer to that question is not clear, Nyshadham and Bodwell agreed that the one thing they could be sure about was that soft skills would be invaluable in what lay ahead for workers—communication, teamwork, self-advocacy, etc. “If I was going to push governments to do something, it would be to ensure that soft skills are embedded in each aspect of their education system from an early stage,” Bodwell stated.
The power of having a driving vision
Meanwhile, it is important to get factories to invest in training programs for their workers for business returns as well to increase the wellbeing of the workers. But both of them have learned from experience that it is very difficult to change people’s way of working. This is where the promising concept of vision-setting comes into play. Bodwell believes that having a clear vision, or a goal, is important for both individuals as well as factories as it ensures that the right steps are taken to achieve it. Quoting anecdotes from his experience, he shared his learning that when workers, managers, or factory management had a vision, they undertook training programs and factory upgrades more readily, as opposed to when it was pushed to them.
“If you can get a factory manager to want [his factory] to be the good factory that you are talking about—the one that treats its workers well and has its productivity systems under control—they suddenly realize that they are all linked together and one cannot work without the other. They then go out of their way to upgrade facilities,” Bodwell shared. Nyshadam agreed, and revealed that his experience with garment factory workers in India and managers of fast-food restaurants in Latin America had also shown him that having a goal was very important in increasing people’s productivity, personal savings, firms’ profits, and led to other positive outcomes.