Areas of notable improvement were in pay practices and overtime

Areas of notable improvement were in pay practices and overtime

Working conditions in Nicaragua's garment sector have improved over the last eight years, with lasting change the result of expanding collaboration with workers, factories and government.

Research released to mark eight years of Better Work Nicaragua shows progress in labour laws, international labour standards, and pay practices since Better Work's inception in 2011 have helped lift the well-being of workers and their families and make businesses more competitive.  

The flagship Better Work Programme of the ILO is jointly managed by the International Finance Corporation. It operates in seven countries (Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti, Indonesia, Jordan, Nicaragua and Vietnam) working with about 1,600 factories that employ some 2.2m workers.

Its 'Progress towards Sustainability' report compares factories beginning the programme with those that have completed four cycles of Better Work assessment, advisory and training services. It found "distinct progress" in many fields of compliance with national labour law and international labour standards.

In assessing factories' performance, Better Work considers eight areas or clusters of working conditions, one of which concerns contracting procedures. In short, all employees are entitled to be provided with a contract specifying terms and conditions of employment and it must be clear that all workers understand those terms and conditions. In this area of contracts, non-compliance fell a remarkable 67 percentage points – from 81% in cycle one factories to 14% in cycle four.

Other areas of notable improvement were in pay practices and overtime, with workers reporting weekly wages up by US$16, but also concern about late and low payments and excess overtime reduced. On the core issue of worker's freedom of association and freedom to collectively bargain, compliance also improved by around 10%. Non-compliance with the national legislation for workers' leave fell by over 80%, with only three factories (13%) out of compliance by cycle four.

Much of the progress in Nicaragua stems from Better Work's collaborative approach with factory management, advising companies on how to correct issues, and strengthening management systems and empowering worker-management committees to identify and remediate problems internally.

"Most factories enrolled in the programme have been steady in their improvement and have enhanced their compliance with international and national labour laws," says Blanca Peralta Paguaga, Better Work Nicaragua programme manager. "Today, our relationship is open and transparent. Managers have come to see us a partner; an organisation committed to helping them out."

Quantitative data

The report also used quantitative data from surveys of workers and managers by Better Work's team of advisors and independent researchers from Tufts University. On the issue of sexual harassment, the Tufts researchers found that greater awareness of the issue among management, as can be achieved through training, is associated with a 29% decrease in worker's concern with this type of abuse. They also concluded that improved employment security and stable employment relations positively affected access to improved education for workers' children.

As in many countries, lifting occupational safety and health to international standards remains a challenging problem in Nicaragua, the report noted. Some areas, however, did see significant progress over the four cycles, including in the treatment of hazardous chemicals, and emergency preparedness.

Engagement beyond factories has seen Better Work's influence grow at the regional and national levels of government and business. "Whether it be through our Labour Law guide, our university-led training programmes for union representatives, or our cataloguing of best practices in leading factories, Better Work can point to a long list of industry tools and government policies where our intervention has been instrumental in producing lasting change," says Paguaga.