“Supervisors of the Future”

The following feature article was written by the International Labor Organization’s Department of Communication.

Nicaragua

“Supervisors of the Future”

The ILO American Regional Meeting kicks off next week in Lima, Peru, with a focus on topics such as productivity, social inclusion, competitiveness and the informal economy. ILO News looks at how some of these issues have been tackled in the apparel industry through Better Work Nicaragua, a joint ILO-IFC programme.

Feature | 10 October 2014

Miguel Alvarez / AFP

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (ILO News) – Edgard Zuniga is proud when he tells us about his challenging job: “Can you imagine suddenly having to manage up to 45 people with no supervisory experience and without having more than an hour or two of instruction for it?”

Zuniga teaches them how to supervise and manage a group of workers. He is a trainer for the Better Work programme in Nicaragua that aims to improve competitiveness and working conditions in the country’s garment sector.

Before joining Better Work in 2011, he was an auditor for a private company. “I saw workers leaving one factory because another one was offering more money. But shortly afterwards they came back to work in the first one. When I asked why they had returned, they told me it was because of the better supervisors there.”

Zuniga learnt that workers are evaluating jobs not only in terms of money. “They want to work in factories where supervisors communicate well and treat them with the respect they deserve.”

The trainer thinks that training the more than 2,000 supervisors working in Better Work factories in Nicaragua is a big challenge. The vast majority of them were originally line workers who were asked to move to supervisory roles overnight.

Zuniga trains a new generation of supervisors who can build positive relationships with their workers. He is part of a team of trainers who teach supervisors how to listen to people, motivate workers and resolve conflicts.

“So far, we have covered eleven out of the 26 factories participating in the Better Work programme. 264 supervisors have been trained this year. This is a good start, but we still have a lot of work ahead. In 2015, we plan to train 625 more.”

Zuniga and his colleagues will have to identify the “supervisors of the future”, workers who can be trained to be effective supervisors. “Our long-term strategy aims at weaving these supervisory skills permanently into the fabric of the Nicaraguan garment industry. The idea is to establish a network, so that they can learn from one another on an ongoing basis.”

Better Work Nicaragua, a joint initiative of the ILO and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the lending and advising arm of the World Bank, started in 2011. The programme helps factories improve their working conditions and make business gains through assessment, advisory and training services. Supervisors’ training only began this year but the programme is already bringing much needed changes at the workplaces.

“We had one supervisor who received a lot of complaints from the workers. After participating in our training, the complaints stopped,” Zuniga says.

And training participants not only report better relations between supervisors and workers but also increased productivity. This is why not only the supervisors are happy with the programme.

Promoting decent work in the supply chain
Elena Arengo, Better Work programme Coordinator in Nicaragua, says that major international brands like Gap Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., Target, Wal-Mart, Gildan, Patagonia, Adidas, PVH and Li&Fung see Better Work as an ally to promote decent and sustainable working conditions in the businesses of their suppliers in Nicaragua.

At an annual meeting with representatives from the brands, local businesses and unions in the capital Managua last July, participants shared her view.

The President of the Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce (Cosep), José Adán Aguerri, stressed that Better Work had launched a dialogue between government, private enterprise and trade unions, which “has placed Nicaragua on the world map, the map of competitiveness. Ten years ago, Nicaragua was the economy with the lowest growth in Central America, today it has the highest growth rate after Panama in the region,” he said. Luis Barbosa, a trade union representative, acknowledged the progress made since the signing of a tripartite agreement between government, employers and workers seven years ago: “We have reached considerable social stability and created jobs.”

Today, with more than 70,000 people working in it, the apparel industry is one of Nicaragua’s most important manufacturing sectors in terms of job creation and national income. Total exports which are estimated at US$1.5 billion annually mainly go to the United States.

In addition to the training for factory supervisors, Better Work Nicaragua has trained factory managers and workers on issues such as workplace communication, fire safety and emergency preparedness, and occupational safety and health. Together with the Ministry of Labor and the National Free Trade Commission, the programme also organized health and safety fairs to raise awareness and provide services to workers in the garment factories.

The Better Work programme in Nicaragua is funded by the Department of Labor of the United States. The training of the supervisors in Nicaraguan garment factories was funded with the support of the Walt Disney Company. Other major donors to the global Better Work programme include the Australian Government, the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) and the Levi Strauss Foundation.