Workplace literacy is not a different stream of education, but a kind of non-formal education in terms of its approach, allowing people to become literate in their own working environments, during their working hours. A workplace literacy course was specifically designed by an international organisation experienced in providing literacy for a group of illiterate workers employed by YOUNGONE (the largest export-oriented sportswear manufacturers in Bangladesh). The idea of workplace literacy is very new in Bangladesh, and has so far only been used in the corporate sector, particularly in garment manufacturing companies. The author is an education coordinator in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
An Example of Workplace Literacy
The adult literacy rate in Bangladesh is about 41.3 % (World Bank Human Development Report, 2001), although government statistics put it at 65.5%. Bangladesh lags behind most other Asian countries in terms of its overall literacy rates. People hold different views regarding the reasons for this poor performance, but poverty has been commonly recognised as the main cause. A large section of the population in Bangladesh has a low standard of living, earns a very meagre income and is illiterate.
YOUNGONE is one of the largest Korean export manufacturers of sportswear in the world. It is also reputedly the largest single foreign investor in Bangladesh. “Nike” is the main buyer of YOUNGONE products, with the bulk of exports going to Western Europe. The YOUNGONE authorities decided to provide basic literacy skills to all of their illiterate workers, in order to attain a fully literate workforce. Initially, the idea of workers’ literacy came from Nike. It was the outcome of a campaign for “clean clothes” by NGOs and activists working in Europe, and a movement for the safety and security of workers in their respective workplaces. Nike committed itself to reforming its existing work practices. This commitment also applied to its subsidiary and contract operations. Nike showed a strong commitment to reform in six key areas: Health & Safety; Child Labour; Independent Monitoring; Worker Education; Micro-enterprise Credit; and Funding for Research on Responsible Business Practices. YOUNGONE, being a producer for Nike, is in the process of fulfilling most of the commitments made by Nike.
YOUNGONE operates seven factories in Bangladesh, with approximately 20,000 workers. Through a literacy base-line survey, YOUNGONE discovered that more than 20% of its total workforce was illiterate. The company authorities then selected illiterate workers, and invited Concern (an international NGO working in Bangladesh on health, education, and community development) to design and facilitate a literacy course. Concern designed a six-month literacy course for 3,600 workers in factories in both Dhaka and Chittagong.
Most of the workers at YOUNGONE are women from poor families, with an age range of 15 to 35. The illiterate workers had never attended school in childhood, due to poverty and other social barriers. They were fortunate to get jobs in factories without any literacy skills, as there are millions of literate jobless people in the country.
The curriculum of the workplace literacy course was especially designed for the workers, using the Language Experience Approach1 (LEA). No printed materials were used in this literacy approach, and instead, the teachers encouraged the participants to identify words, phrases, and numerical terms widely used in YOUNGONE factories, specific to the participants’ own literacy needs. The terminology taught on the course thus reflected issues from the daily lives of the students, their employment context, and the code of conduct of the factory premises, including notices, instructions, directions, labels and packets of products, and the language widely used inside the factories.
In accordance with the agreement between Concern and YOUNGONE, Concern selected the students through a process called a “gentle test”. The test gave an impression of the actual literacy level of the workers and it was helpful in the formation of groups with common learning needs. Concern also selected the literacy facilitators through interviews, and organised a five-day training course for the teachers, aiming to provide orientation on curriculum, classroom organisation, the teaching-learning process, and student progress assessment.
The course comprised basic literacy skills, along with some numerical skills, including the following:
Read and understand 4-letter words using different letters in Bangla (national language of Bangladesh) and selected key words in English, as relevant to their job
Read sentences of up to 6 words in Bangla
Read numbers from 1 to 100 in both Bangla and English
From dictation, write words which they had read in both Bangla and English
Write at least 3 sentences of their own formation in Bangla
From dictation, write the numbers 1-100 in both Bangla and English (numerical form)
Add 2 lines with 2 digits, and subtract 2 lines
Be acquainted with the place of units, tens and hundreds
Acquire a basic idea of multiplication, division and measurement units
120 classes were organised, with 20 participants in each class. Through this system, a total of 120 sessions were held every day. Each student had to come to class on alternate days, and s/he received a total of 72 hours of teaching.
As mentioned above, the Language Experience Approach was followed in the literacy classes. This approach allows students to start learning a language through their own vocabulary and language pattern. The students have a choice of learning contexts, which can be words or sentences. At first they become familiar with the context, and then they start to learn letters and vowel signs. When they have learned a few letters, they construct new words using them. In that way, they learn the basic skills of reading and writing. They also learn numbers and simple calculation, using real-life examples.
Concern provided technical assistance in the form of supervision and monitoring of the programme. The programme started in September 2001 and ended in April 2002. Concern ensured course supervision by deploying an experienced supervisor for seven months during the organisation, implementation and evaluation of the course. The supervisor visited the literacy classes daily, to observe the learning process and the progress of the students, and to provide immediate support to the teachers. YOUNGONE authorities provided administrative and logistical support through counsellors, ensured regular attendance at classes, and offered follow-up support.
After the completion of all the courses, a course assessment took place, which included a written and oral test for each student, interviews with teachers and counsellors, and an analysis of monitoring documents.
Attendance rate and test results
In the workplace literacy assessment, the correlation between attendance rates and test results was analysed from a statistical perspective. A positive correlation of 0.7459813 was established.
Student results obtained in different categories
The test results were categorised into 4 different grades, according to mark ranges:
28% of students obtained 80 to 100% (‘A’ grade)
24% of students obtained 60 to 79% (‘B’ grade) .
29% of students obtained 40 to 59% (‘C’ grade) .
84 students obtained less than 40% (‘D’ grade)
- The overall attendance rate was quite poor, averaging 31%.
- During the off-peak season, attendance was higher than during the peak season, which indicated that production pressure was the major cause of poor attendance rates.
- Students performed better in the mathematics component than in oral and written skills in both Bangla and English.
- Students were good at calculations, but weak at descriptive writing.
- The overall performance of students was good (61%), considering their attendance rates, and would have been better if they had attended classes on a more regular basis.
- A significant number of students obtained over 80%.
The sustainability of literacy skills depends entirely on opportunities to practise. There is some scope for the neoliterates to practise their literacy skills in YOUNGONE factory premises, so the positive results of this project should be sustainable.
This project on workplace literacy indicates that if the relevant authorities are willing to take the initiative, they can support the development of their staff. YOUNGONE is one such manufacturing company, which is trying to ameliorate the situation in its factories. Other manufacturers within Bangladesh can learn from YOUNGONE how to establish a healthy environment in their factories. Workplace literacy is an attempt to provide educational opportunities to workers, and could be widely replicated throughout the corporate sector.
1 A student-centred learning system that facilitates the learning context with the students’ own language pattern.