Having your eyes tested and choosing a pair of glasses in order to read or enable you to do your job better is something most in the western world take for granted. In many garment-producing countries in Asia, however, this is a luxury, and not a service that is readily available, even if you do have the money.

VisionSpring was set up in 2001 with the aim of providing eye tests and affordable, quality glasses to the world’s workers and low-income communities, where previously this was unattainable. Working across a whole host of industries, VisionSpring began working with the ready-made garment industry in 2018 and has successfully on-boarded big brands including Levi Strauss, VF Corp and Deckers to the cause.

The aim of the programme, ultimately, is to provide workers with a higher quality of life, increase their productivity and earning ability, while increasing the company’s revenues – results VisionSpring is seeing in India, Bangladesh and Vietnam where the programme is running for the RMG sector.

Ramona Handel-Bajema, a senior advisor of resource mobilisation at the social enterprise since 2019, is keen for the apparel industry to understand just how important the challenge of correcting vision is, not only for the success of the sector, but for the wellbeing of its workforce.

“Clear vision is essential for the apparel industry, for productivity, and [prevention of] accidents. There’s a safety element. You have to be able to see the exit signs if there’s an emergency. The apparel workforce has one of the lowest levels of glasses use on the planet, so we’re working in the places that have the highest need.

“We’re asking people to do this [RMG] work quickly, efficiently and with no mistakes and it’s totally vision dependant and we’re not giving them the glasses they need. It seems like the obvious place to start. And everybody benefits.”

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In most garment-producing regions in Asia, having access to glasses can appear to be a luxury item and reserved for elite classes. Handel-Bajema says VisionSpring is working hard to reverse that misconception.

On-boarding big brands

VisionSpring, however, is reliant on funding to carry out its work and it has been fortunate to have found this with Levi Strauss, VF Corp, and Williams-Sonoma, who pay for the full screening of all workers in the dedicated supplier factories, inclusive of glasses.

Its work with Levi Strauss is four years in and to date they have successfully screened almost 50,000 workers and provided 14,200 pairs of quality glasses to factory workers in these three countries, correcting their blurry vision, increasing their productivity, and earning potential, while ultimately providing them with a higher quality of life.

Of these workers, 79% were first-time wearers, highlighting that a large proportion of the workers had never received the vision services they required before these services were provided to them by the programme.

Swapan Paul, regional manager, sustainability – responsible sourcing South Asia, for Levi Strauss told Just Style it discovered the issue of poor vision through its Worker Well-Being programme, which led it to a partnership with VisionSpring. He says it offered a solution that “demonstrated scalability and a positive impact on worker productivity and well-being”.

“The results have been clear—by providing workers with eyeglasses we can have a profound impact on not only their productivity and earning capacity, but also on their ability to take care of their families and participate in all the intricate aspects of life.”

Through the programme, Paul says the goal for Levi Strauss is to continually improve the lives of the workers who make its products.

“The foundation is committed to identifying innovative approaches that advance well-being and lifting up best practices within our company and the industry.”

Paul says the company is also open to expanding the vision programme to other countries, or to work with other implementation partners to see if there is the potential to work together elsewhere.

Pricing – a true benefit

Brands participate in the programme as part of a multi-year funding scheme, and Handel-Bajema is hopeful of encouraging more apparel companies to sign up to the programme to help share the cost for the brands that are participating. Outdoor fashion retailer Deckers is set to join this year in Vietnam.

“VF Corp and Levi are not going to fix this alone. We need more brands to join to solve the problem,” she emphasises.

For a factory of 10,000 workers, the cost could be US$50k in Bangladesh to $120k in Vietnam for a full screening, inclusive of glasses. Factories are chosen either based on the age of the workforce or for strategic reasons. And Handel-Bajema is keen to point out that factory owners also contribute to the cost once they see the value in it.

Each test takes around 15-20 minutes to complete, takes place at the factory, and if a worker just needs reading glasses they are provided on the spot. If a worker needs simple prescription glasses, the VisionSpring team has technology with them that can provide pop-in lenses on-site. They will return with custom prescription glasses another day. Nobody who needs glasses is denied, Handel-Bajema states. Counselling is also provided for workers to counter misperceptions, for example, that the glasses will give them side-effects like headaches.

She believes the programme has been life-changing for some workers where the test has picked up cataracts or glaucoma – issues that can be referred and treated when caught in time.

And it’s not a one-time job. VisionSpring returns bi-annually to pick up any new workers.

Tangible results in productivity

The benefits of the scheme are clear to see, and one of the earliest trials on this, Handel- Bajema explains, produced some of the best results they’ve had to date. The tea workers in Assam, India that received glasses saw their productivity increase between 22-32%.

“It’s the biggest increase in productivity tied to a health intervention ever recorded. And it’s totally common sense.”

The programme can screen around 300 workers per day, taking around 4-6 weeks to screen a 10,000 worker factory. In the younger workforces, the programme is finding around 30% need glasses in Bangladesh, while in the older workforces this is at around 50%.

“So 30% of the workers go back to work being able to see,” Handel- Bajema asserts. “How many social programmes can you invest in where the impact is so immediate? With training programmes you have to validate if they work or not. Here, they get to see the results almost immediately.”

Results aside, Handel- Bajema makes the valid point that while brands are often keen to invest in women’s empowerment programmes, equally as important is keeping her in the workforce and not have disabilities discriminating against her.

“When I was at a BGMEA conference in Dhaka in November, they were saying turnover is a big problem. They want to keep their veterans; they don’t want to have to bring in new blood every couple of years. So if you have a 35-year-old veteran on a [sewing] machine that is faster than anyone but her eyes start to go, what a waste for that factory to have to move her to packaging. And she just lost half of her income because that doesn’t pay as much as on a machine so you’ve affected her livelihood and all she needed was a pair of glasses that shouldn’t be more than a few dollars. It’s the problem hiding in plain sight.”

Improving access

There are a number of hurdles Handel-Bajema and her team need to overcome, however, if they are to really scale this programme. The first is making the industry understand how unavailable glasses are in some of these garment-producing countries, as well as access to optometrists.

“Bangladesh produces 30 optometrists a year. This is not enough for a country of 165 million people, but we are fortunate to recruit mission-driven optometrists to be on staff in Bangladesh. They could be working in an optical shop or private hospital, but they join VisionSpring because they are committed to caring for undeserved people.”

In Vietnam, glasses are more readily available but they are often of very poor quality so VisionSpring provides them. Here, optometrists are available but only in cities and to the middle class, not the working class.

“Here we partner with implementing partners to go into the factories – we don’t need a huge army of optometrists on our own staff in Vietnam. I want to take that model to Cambodia, Indonesia, Peru, Kenya, and Ghana.”

The second hurdle is convincing brands this issue is real, amongst the many other priorities a brand has to consider and deliberate on in terms of investment.

“We’ve been really fortunate because we’ve worked with brands that really care. Working with VF Corp and Levi is a dream. They really care and they really get it, and they challenge us constantly to make improvements on how to make this sustainable so we can make a real change rather than just sprinkling glasses everywhere.”

In 2022 VisionSpring served its 10 millionth customer. The ultimate goal for VisionSpring is to reach the next 10m in a shorter period of time. Handel-Bajema says she would like for the entire Bangladesh RMG sector to have access to eyeglasses — for them to be normalized, and destigmatised.

“In order to do something like that we need more brands to push this demand. If Levi Strauss sources from one factory of 2,000 people in Bangladesh, it very generously pays to screen the entire factory. But if they are only sourcing 20% of what that factory is producing, why should they be responsible for investing where all of the other brands are benefiting?” Handel-Bajema asks.

“We believe we can get to a tipping point where market forces will take over and you won’t need VisionSpring anymore. We can always supply quality glasses but you don’t need us to go in there demonstrating the value of these screenings. We want to normalise glasses wearing in places like India, Vietnam and Bangladesh.”