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Apparel company Brandix is transforming the communities where its employees live and work, while empowering its female workforce.
Anusha Alles, manager of corporate social responsibility for Brandix, inaugurates a water project.
Mala Chandrani has worked as a sewing machine operator at Brandix for five years. A widow, she lives with her two daughters in rural Sri Lanka. It used to take her at least 30 minutes to collect water from her brother’s well, some distance from her home. Each time she did, she faced the wrath of her brother’s family, who, despite giving her permission to use the well, hectored her for her dependence on them.
Chandrani endured this hardship several times a day in order to get water for drinking, washing and cooking—that is, until 2013, when her life changed dramatically: She was selected to receive a well of her own under her employer’s Care for Our Own program, a gift she generously shares with her neighbors. “Having water has revived our lives and is a major relief in attending to my day-to-day chores,” she says. “It has allowed me to build an addition onto my house and take in two boarders for extra income.”
The Brandix Brand
Stories like Chandrani’s aren’t typical of what one usually hears when the global garment industry makes the news. More often, one reads about tragedies like the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed 1,134 workers, or reports on poor working and safety conditions. It’s rare to hear about a well-regulated apparel industry like the one in Sri Lanka—and even rarer to learn of a company that not only plays by the rules but also actively strengthens local communities and makes an effort to improve its employees’ personal lives.
Yet such is the tale of Brandix, the largest exporter of apparel in Sri Lanka, which has a portfolio that includes Victoria’s Secret, Gap, H&M, Banana Republic, Tommy Hilfiger, Hanes, Express, Old Navy and Marks & Spencer. Brandix is both a hugely successful business and a case study in corporate social responsibility. The Care for Our Own program that Chandrani benefited from has made the company a national leader in sustainability.
The $600 million company employs more than 47,000 associates across 42 manufacturing plants in Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. Promoting itself as an “end-to-end apparel solutions provider,” Brandix was a pioneer of the “total solutions” concept in South Asia. In other words, the company offers its global clients a full spectrum of services—from product design and manufacturing to quality control and marketing.
A leader in manufacturing and supply chain management, Brandix is credited with many firsts: It built the world’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum-rated garment factory; it was the first company in Sri Lanka to build a LEED Gold-certified office complex; and it built the first supply chain city in South Asia, the 1,000-acre Brandix India Apparel City.
“Our DNA is entrepreneurial,” says Udena Wickremesooriya, a Brandix board director. “We’ve gone from being a trader, to a tailor, to a supplier, to a supply chain company, to greening the supply chain, then building a holistic supply chain city in India, to today being an environmentally sustainable supply chain solutions company.”
The company’s achievements are noteworthy, from organizing the country’s largest corporate blood donations four years running, to being recognized as an industry leader in occupational safety and health, to carrying the standard for the apparel sector at the 2013 Ceylon Chamber of Commerce Best Corporate Citizen awards ceremony. Brandix also won the Gold Medal for HR practices at the national HRM Awards in 2012.
Made in Sri Lanka
The garment industry in Sri Lanka emerged from modest beginnings in the 1970s to become the island nation’s largest source of export revenue and a key employment driver.
With 2013 apparel-sector revenues of $4.3 billion, Sri Lanka is on its way to achieving President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s goal of being among the world’s top 10 apparel-export countries by 2020. China currently tops the list with $153 billion in apparel-export revenue, according to the World Trade Organization. The United States is the main importer of Sri Lankan textiles, accounting for 76 percent of total exports, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The Sri Lankan textile and apparel industry employs about 15 percent of the country’s workforce, accounts for half of its total exports and, combined with tea, is responsible for 24 percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP. The end of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war in 2009 has brought in much-needed foreign direct investment and opened new development opportunities for the industry.
According to Brandix Chief People Officer Ishan Dantanarayana, Sri Lanka has strong legislation in place governing workplace safety and health, wages and hours, and environmental standards. That prevents abuses like those seen elsewhere in the garment industry, such as the type that resulted in the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 workers.
In 2006, the industry mounted an international campaign under the slogan “Garments Without Guilt.” Sri Lanka is the only South Asian country that has signed 39 of the International Labour Organization Core Conventions, which establish environmental protections and prohibit forced labor, child labor and discrimination.
But perhaps most remarkable is Brandix’s employee-focused culture.
“We believe that improving the lives of the people that work at Brandix promotes a culture and values that encourage people to enjoy their work experience,” says Chief People Officer Ishan Dantanarayana. “If we can provide solutions that negate the problems that beset our workforce, such as a lack of water, this enables them to come to work happier and focus on delivering our vision of providing ‘Inspired Solutions’ for our global clients,” he says.
The company strives to go far beyond providing a paycheck. “If you take the overall culture in this part of the world, you find that money is not the overarching motivator,” says Brandix CEO Ashroff Omar. “There is a lot of emotion attached to the purpose of behavior.”
Dantanarayana summarizes the company’s people strategy this way: “It’s the organization’s responsibility to see that the work environment, work ethic, HR practices, compliance standards, and compensation and benefits are such that people are inspired.”
That philosophy sets Brandix apart, Omar says. “We attract top talent, whether it’s from the universities or from the competition, because of the way we do things and treat people.”
Women at Work
Women play a central role in the Sri Lankan garment industry, accounting for up to 85 percent of its workforce—approximately 350,000 work in 850 factories around the country.
“By virtue of being the largest single employer of women in the country by far, our industry mission is to help women build better lives for themselves and their families by protecting their rights, undertaking rural poverty alleviation programs, and creating opportunities for education and personal growth,” says Tuly Cooray, secretary general of Sri Lanka’s Joint Apparel Association Forum, the guiding body of the industry.
Ninety percent of employees at Brandix are female, making the issues that concern women central to the company’s HR strategy. But demographics and cultural norms have created ongoing retention issues. Despite the high percentage of women employed in the garment industry, Sri Lanka’s national female labor force is 40 percent, one of the lowest in Asia. Moreover, many women remain in the workforce for only a few years.
“The most pressing HR issue is filling the workforce,” Dantanarayana explains. “The typical track for a female garment worker is that she’ll get a job at a young age, work for a couple of years, save money for her wedding, get married, and then settle down at home and care for the family,” he says.
For Brandix, bettering the lives of its mostly female workforce begins at home. The company provides free transportation to safely shuttle women back and forth from work; awards educational scholarships to workers’ children; facilitates flexible-work arrangements; and offers onsite health clinics, as well as discounted grocery shopping, pregnancy care, child care, family counseling and funeral benefits, for workers and their families.
Engagement is strengthened through company-sponsored activities such as the largest private-sector volleyball tournament in the country and an employee competition called “Brandix Singing and Dancing Stars” that spotlights employees’ talents.
Water Is Life
Eight years ago, Brandix surveyed its workforce to understand the biggest challenges in its workers’ personal lives. Access to water was chief among them. “All the other issues—poverty, lack of education, sanitation and safety—were connected to water,” says Anusha Alles, manager of corporate social responsibility for Brandix. “Water is the element that unifies our business with the needs of our associates and our communities.”
In 2011, only 39 percent of Sri Lanka’s population was served by pipe-borne water and only 30 percent of the piped water systems had the capacity to provide a 24-hour supply, according to the Sri Lanka National Water Supply & Drainage Board.
The job of collecting water mainly falls to women. According to Alles, women typically wake at 4 a.m. to travel as long as two hours to get two buckets of water, with which they cook, clean and get their kids ready for school. If they are lucky, they have a little water left over for themselves. “In some cases—and we were shocked—we found that the daughter doesn’t go to school because she is responsible for collecting water,” Alles says.
Since the inception of the Care for Our Own program in 2006, Brandix has completed more than 3,000 water supply projects. The company played a major role in providing safe drinking water to affected areas after the 2004 tsunami and, in partnership with British bank and financial company HSBC, is facilitating resettlement in the war-torn northern part of the country.
“These are people who have gone through 30 years of war, and they’re coming back to their homes and need water facilities,” Alles says. More than 800 families on the northern coast below the Jaffna peninsula now have a year-round water supply through a corporate collaboration that provided two solar-powered systems. Brandix also partnered with clothing retailer Gap Inc. to build the country’s only water research institute and spearheads education campaigns on waterborne diseases.
Growing at Work and Home
Like many of her peers, 23-year-old Hansi Gamlath felt uncertain about how to manage her finances once she began earning a paycheck. Gamlath works at the Brandix Casualwear plant in Ratmalana. She was one of 140 graduates of the Gap Inc. Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement (P.A.C.E.) program in February 2014. She says she emerged from the program a changed woman. “Before the program, I didn’t have the proper idea of how to manage my salary,” she says. “Now, I know how to prepare a monthly budget.”
Gamlath, who placed first in the program’s final exam, says she’s also better able to deal with stress and manage interpersonal relationships with co-workers. Understanding her country’s marriage and property laws has also been a great help. “Legal literacy is very important to me,” she says. “Learning about property laws has allowed me to help solve community disputes.”
Launched in India in 2007, the P.A.C.E. program was begun to provide female garment workers in factories that make Gap products with life skills, technical training and support. Developed in partnership with the International Center for Research on Women and India’s Swasti Health Resource Center, and implemented with the support of the humanitarian nonprofit organization CARE, the program offers 65 to 80 hours of education to interested women.
More than 25,000 women in 60 garment factories across seven Asian countries have participated in P.A.C.E. since its inception. The program in Sri Lanka was piloted at Brandix’s Ratmalana plant in October 2012.
Tapping into a Need
Under Brandix’s Care for Our Own program, employees with limited access to clean water and sanitation can apply to receive a community well, a household well or pipe-borne water sent directly to an employee’s home. It’s a vital service given that only 39 percent of the population in Sri Lanka is served by pipe-borne water and only a third of that supply can provide 24-hour service.A few details about the program:The application process. Brandix receives thousands of water project requests from its employees each year. Coordinators interview applicants and gather detailed information. The applicants are short-listed, with a target of 500 initiatives approved each year. Site visits. Once the beneficiaries are identified, sites are assessed and prioritized. “If our employee has a water issue in her village, most likely the entire village is suffering,” says Anusha Alles, manager of corporate social responsibility for Brandix. Sometimes an employee asks for pipe-borne water to her house, but it’s determined that a well would be a better use of resources. Other times, the worker will suggest building a well in a common area so that 10 to 20 families can benefit. Construction and maintenance. The projects are built by local labor—which also benefits the community. Brandix employees are not asked to pay for the construction; once the project is completed, however, they are responsible for maintaining the water supply and paying the water bill to the local utility. Resource sustainability is key. “If a project doesn’t last past three months, it’s a failure,” Alles says. The cost. While a typical water project costs about $1,000, “you can’t put a value on what it means for the beneficiaries,” Alles says. “You’re talking about saving hours each day spent collecting water. … They come to work with more energy, and they’re happier.”The impact. Sometimes an entire community uses the newly built water supply for agricultural work. “So even though our direct beneficiaries are just over 2,000, indirectly we’ve helped many times that,” Alles says. “This in turn elevates the stature of our employees in the community around them and gives them a lot of pride,” says Brandix Chief People Officer Ishan Dantanarayana.
Beyond workplace development skills, program participants learn basic concepts of family law—such as how to handle divorces and property issues—in sessions conducted after work in a classroom environment. Brandix pays for the overtime and transportation costs.
Reproductive health is also discussed. “In Sri Lanka, there is a social stigma about things like abortion, family planning, sexual relations and sexual diseases,” Alles says.
Many participants have become informal leaders and brand ambassadors on the factory floor. “This is a huge benefit for the company; what they learn, they teach their line,” Alles says. This informal leadership becomes formal leadership when they’re promoted, she adds.
Other business benefits are quantifiable, too. Sixty percent of P.A.C.E. participants in Ratmalana have developed skills that have led to promotions. In addition, the plant’s absentee, turnover and retention rates have all improved.
The Business Case
The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a Geneva-based global association of companies, defines corporate social responsibility (CSR) as contributing to sustainable development by working to improve quality of life for employees, their families, the local community, and stakeholders up and down the supply chain. Much more than corporate philanthropy, it integrates doing good with business strategy.
“CSR is strategic,” Dantanarayana says. “This is not charity. Retention is the business outcome. A higher capacity to hire is the business outcome. We’ve been able to develop loyalty around our brand and reputation.”
According to Dantanarayana, one of the company’s biggest assets is its internal brand ambassadors. “If people at Brandix spread the good word about Brandix, there’s nothing more attractive than that,” he says.
Brandix’s CSR efforts have also had a powerful effect on the rest of the business community, according to Omar. “That’s the beauty of competition,” he says. “It motivates everybody to do good.”
Dantanarayana says the business of HR is not simply about managing people. It is also about “creating competencies for people, supporting their careers, providing them a better livelihood for their families and society. How good you are is how good your people are.”
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
SHRM Foundation report: HRM’s Role in Corporate Social and Environmental Sustainability
SHRM article: Employee Engagement in Asia Remains Steady as Global Levels Rise
SHRM webcast: Women in the Global Workforce
SHRM video: Ishan Dantanarayana, chief people officer for Brandix, discusses the company’s decades-long commitment to sustainability.
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