US retail giant Wal-Mart has launched a special training programme for more than 60,000 female workers at 150 of its supplier factories in India, Bangladesh, China and Central America. As part of the Women in Factories initiative, the retailer also expects to boost product quality and lower prices - as ethical sourcing director Stella Bray, and senior manager of ethical sourcing Meredith Menhennett, tell Petah Marian.

"We wholeheartedly believe that investing people is good for business, but also good for communities," Meredith Menhennett, Wal-Mart's senior manager of ethical sourcing tells just-style. "It will strengthen communities within the supply chain, it will also strengthen families."

The retailer's Women in Factories programme will launch this year in Bangladesh and India, and aims to teach critical life skills to women workers across 150 factories in these countries, as well as China and Central America, over the next five years.

The scheme is being designed and implemented in collaboration with non-profit groups CARE in Bangladesh and SWASTI in India, and will be evaluated by Northwestern University in partnership with development group DAI and consulting firm Mission Measurement.

Improving the lives and the communities of its female workers communication, hygiene, reproductive health, occupational health and safety, will create a more engaged workforce, Wal-Mart says. Up to 8,000 women will also receive leadership training to develop the work and life skills necessary for personal and career development.

But it also makes business sense, too by helping to improve productivity and lead to better quality products.

"By educating and empowering women in factories and creating a stronger supply chain, suppliers realise greater efficiencies in their factories, which should result in higher quality products, lower prices and more reliable product availability for customers," Michelle Gloeckler, senior vice president of Home for Wal-Mart, said alongside the launch.

Ethical sourcing director Stella Bray adds that the scheme builds upon the retailer's Supplier Development Programme, which helps to "support compliance from a preventative medicine approach".

The system works to get in front of problems and be pro-active, "instead of reactive through audits". The development programme also helps Wal-Mart's suppliers to understand what is missing in their factories, or areas for improvement, and helps them come up with solutions to prevent problems from occurring in the future.

Creating a more engaged workforce
Menhennett explains how women have responded to initiatives that are similar to the Women in Factories programme.

Speaking about a woman she met in India, Menhennett says: "When she went to work before she attended training, she would zone out and focus on just getting through the day and thinking about the things that she was going to do later - and all of a sudden she realised that instead of being disconnected from the work environment, she could actively become engaged that she could actually make a difference - and she did.

"So through the line, she would actively encourage others, and if anyone was struggling she would guide and teach them." In the past, the woman would see quality defects on the line and "just let it go by, but now she would take ownership of that."

The programme goes beyond simply creating a more engaged workforce.

Menhennett says women have been asking for more information about nutrition, something the retailer is working into its programme. "If a woman is not getting enough protein or iron, or if they're tired or don't have energy, but can gain the understanding of how to realistically supplement their diet, these things have a very tangible impact on her life, but also her work performance - it touches absenteeism, it touches productivity."

The Wal-Mart foundation will fund the programme for two years. The first round of training will be undertaken by its NGO partners, who will work with the HR teams within the factories to continue the programme.

"The second round of leadership will be conducted by the factory with the active support and teaching of the NGO partners. And they will continue to have the NGO and Wal-Mart's support," emphasises Menhennett. Meanwhile the training will be undertaken inside the factory, which will compensate the workers for the time they're in training, she emphasises.

At the same time, its evaluation partners, Northwestern University in partnership with DAI and Mission Measurement, will understand its impact from both social and business perspectives.

The programme will be available to other retailers, says Menhennett. "This is a scheme we want to build within the industry and we definitely want to share. We're actively sharing learnings on how this can affect the industry."