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The heart of our global supply chain always has and always will be - people – from cotton farmers to garment factory workers to the colleague on the till at your local store. A supply chain is only as strong as the people in it – they need to be engaged and well looked after, which is something I’ll be talking on this week at the Drapers Sustainable Fashion Conference with CARE International. 

With CARE we’re proud to work collaboratively on an incredibly important health programme in Bangladesh – HALOW+. The programme began by providing health services and training to 50,000 garment workers across 18 factories and their communities. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, through Business Partnerships for Global Good, we were able to scale to an additional 20,000 people in seven new factories.

This year at M&S we’re refocusing our efforts on the people at the heart of our supply chain – we’ve already taken decisive action - signing the Call to Action on Human Rights abuses in Xinjiang and sharing the findings and commitments made from the independent ‘gap analysis’ report we requested from Oxfam to help identify the action we can take to further improve our supply chain. 

But in order to move forward, it’s important we look back at what we’ve done and consider the impact it’s had. 

In 2019/20, 12 factories making garments for M&S participated in Better Work Bangladesh’s Gender Equality and Returns (GEAR) initiative, part of a programme by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). GEAR equips women with the soft and technical skills necessary to progress to higher-level roles. The women also had access to digital financial skills. The results from the GEAR training ultimately saw 84% of participants achieving promotions with an average 39% increase in salary. 

During the pandemic, these women, who also had access to digital financial services, were interviewed by Microfinance Opportunities through its Garment Worker Diaries initiative to track their resilience. Ultimately, whilst there were of course challenges, women who participated in the training received higher wages, worked better hours, reported less food insecurity and reported joint decision making within their households. In fact, women who had received the gender equality training and had access to digital financial services were twice as likely to report they made joint financial decisions in their household.

A really key finding of the research was the advantages of handling money digitally. In 2019, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, BSR’s HERfinance Digital Wages program supported ten M&S suppliers in Bangladesh employing over 34,000 workers (nearly 18,000 women) to make the switch from cash to digital payments by providing guidance, training, and support to both factory management and workers directly – and this training continues. 

These women had more time to become comfortable with digital payments before the pandemic and therefore were able to transfer and spend money more safely than women who had not benefitted from access to digital wages previously. It remains imperative that companies support suppliers to embrace digital payments – it results in more regular saving, more joint decision making and for suppliers reduces administration time for processing wages – to name just a few advantages. 

So, as we refocus our efforts on the people in our supply chain, a key learning we’re taking forward is that to truly advance equality for women in our supply chain we need to take a more holistic approach that incorporates health, leadership, protection, and financial skills training. Providing access to digital money supported women, but it was in partnership with skills training it achieved far greater resilience in a crisis. 

Of course, there’s great merit in so many amazing community programmes & projects but undoubtedly it is through collaborative efforts and the sum of all these amazing parts that we can make the most difference. 

Here’s what our partner, Laura Hawkesford, Head of Private Sector Engagement at CARE International UK, says about our work. 

When COVID-19 arrived in Bangladesh, the existing health infrastructure created by CARE and M&S through the HALOW+ programme was a huge asset because workers knew and trusted how and where to access health information. CARE and M&S were able to adapt HALOW+ programme and the relationships with M&S suppliers to rapidly respond to the pandemic and ensure access to vital health services and information were available to workers and surrounding communities.”