Monday, March 21, 2011

Sex Education

Today was one of those days that make it all worthwhile. I feel inspired, that my work is meaningful and that there's a sense of purpose behind what I do.

For a bit of context, let me rewind a day. Yesterday I took one of those very touristy organized trips to the Mekong Delta where foreigners are basically bused and boated from one gift shop to another. It was a very pretty tour, but I just wish there were a more authentic way to see different parts of the world. I did, however, enjoy our tour guide's perspective on Vietnam. At one point she discussed the country's problem with population control, contributed in part by an unwillingness to discuss sex in Vietnamese culture. As a consequence, not only is unwanted pregnancy on the rise, so are STDs like HIV/AIDS.

My tour guide's comments perfectly set up today's factory visit. We recently partnered with a Vietnamese factory to invest in HERproject, a factory-based health education program for women in developing countries, and today I had the chance to observe a training session.

Since the training was conducted entirely in Vietnamese, I didn't understand the content, but I got a sense of the discussion from the condoms, leaflets and birth control pills that were being used as props and handed out. Later, I was debriefed on the content, which was pretty consistent with my junior high school health education class. It mostly concerned how to use condoms, how to avoid STDs and how to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

I was worried that the training session would be fruitless, given my understanding of the discomfort surrounding talking about sex. The women in the session, however, seemed very engaged throughout the doctor's presentation. And when it came time for questions, they were eager to learn more! The participants seemed hungry for this information and it was clear that these concepts were new to them. I was relieved to see this level of engagement and felt good that our investment was not in vain.

Today's visit also included a meeting with the factory's management team, who shared some of their experiences in implementing the program. Sure, they cited some frustrations, but most of them had to do with logistics and not the core content of the training. Everyone seemed to believe in the importance of delivering health training. There are opportunities to deliver the program more smoothly, but nothing that cannot be overcome.

But what I didn't expect was to hear the factory managers cite this investment as a potential competitive advantage. Even though the training program was launched only a few months ago, they already saw participants taking these learnings back to their families and communities. The factory was beginning to earn a reputation as a preferred employer and people in the community appreciated the added investment in worker education. In a time when all factories, across all industries, are facing tremendous challenges in recruiting Vietnamese workers, this is an obvious business benefit.

When I first considered entering the field of CSR over a decade ago, I never would have imagined that I'd spend a day at work sitting in a sex ed class in Vietnam, but today has turned out to be one of the most gratifying days of my career.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Model Factory

I'm in Jakarta again, this time visiting some factories we currently work with and assessing some others that are not yet approved for my company. It's unusual for me to get the chance to visit factories we're not yet working with and I'm learning that representing a potential client feels very different from playing the role of the social compliance guy who comes into a factory to see what's unacceptable.

The main difference is that factory management really directs their comments to me, the company representative, instead of the social compliance auditors who usually lead the factory tour. Management is eager to show me innovative practices, sparkling new machinery and practices that might set them apart.

The first factory we visited yesterday was one of the best I've seen from a CSR perspective. The factory managing director was eager to share with me some of the community investment work it has implemented, some at the behest of a customer, but others that it initiated to fulfill business and community needs it identified. Some of the highlights to me included the following practices:

CNG Power - Apparently, Indonesia sits on a huge pool of natural gas, so this factory converted its power supply to compressed natural gas. The factory has realized tremendous cost savings due to this transition and mentioned that the amount saved was so significant that they could not reveal how much it was!

Wastewater Treatment - Years ago, the factory realized it was having a negative impact on the environment when blue geese were appearing nearby, due to the dyestuff in its effluent. Since then, the factory invested in an on-site wastewater treatment facility that ensures all effluent is free of chemicals and harmful dyes.

Infant Mortality Campaign - Apparently, the region where this factory is located has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country. Factory management found that some women workers would get pregnant, go on maternity leave and their babies would die. The women would suffer from extreme emotional devastation, return to work once their maternity leave was finished, then immediately try to get pregnant again, resulting in less productive workers and the potential of another few months out of the office. To combat this, the factory has embarked on an extensive infant mortality campaign, that includes not only education, but also training and nominating capable midwives for factory workers. The factory has seen great success in reducing workers' infant mortality rates, and continues to find benefit from this investment.

Community Health Clinic - After the factory realized workers would take time off to care for their sick husbands and family, it invested in a community health clinic that provides healthcare services at a substantially reduced cost. The clinic is used by factory workers, their families and others in the nearby community - a visible symbol of the factory's commitment to the community.

Outreach to NGOs - One of the most surprising initiatives is the factory's proactive outreach to local, national and international non-governmental organizations. It's tough to get large multi-national corporations to understand the potential benefits of partnering with NGOs, but this one factory already has seen the power of learning from civil society organizations.

There were some other initiatives that puts this factory among "best in class" in my mind, but what I was most impressed by was the factory manager's attitude toward these initiatives. She understood both the business and social/environmental benefits of these programs, realized where her team did not have expertise so brought in the right community partners and eagerly searched for additional ways the factory could support its workers and community.

If only more factories took this approach, I might be out of a job! But the world would be a better place.