Water investment helps people and business thrive

Roksana washes her hands at new facilities installed near her home as part of WaterAid's programme with her employer, Fakir Fashion, Narayanganj, Bangladesh. Image: WaterAid/Fabeha Monir

First-of-its-kind research from WaterAid shows when companies invest in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for their employees, their business thrives.

Productivity increases, health, morale and loyalty improve, absenteeism reduces, punctuality enhances and staff turnover lowers – ultimately driving business profits.

The new data, released in two reports titled ‘Boosting business: why investing in water, sanitation and hygiene pays off’, supported by HSBC, was carried out in the apparel and leather industries across six workplaces in India and Bangladesh over two years.

It is the first time impacts from WASH investment on both employees and businesses has been analysed, according to the international charity.

Fakir Fashion supervisor Minara Akter said WASH training helped her and other pregnant colleagues. Image: WaterAid/Fabeha Monir

With trends showing that consumers increasingly care how their clothing is made and seek out brands that prioritise employee welfare, investment in WASH should become a core part of companies’ strategies, WaterAid said.

The report's key findings into WASH investment included:

In India:

• Employees’ access to drinking water rose by 30%, and to handwashing stations by 13%

• Absenteeism fell by 29%, and 83% of employees said they had improved their handwashing behaviour

In Bangladesh:

• In employees’ communities, almost a third of the households (31%) now have safely managed water, and 26% of households now have decent toilets, compared with zero access for both of these before the project

• Absenteeism fell by 15%, punctuality improved by 5%, and attrition decreased by 2%

• A climate resilient rainwater harvester installed by Fakir Fashion's ready-made garment factory in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, provided significant environmental benefits and cost-savings in terms of water supply and treatment

Overall, Bangladesh productivity showed a great improvement across the three factories, resulting in the biggest business benefit – an estimated US$7.8 million over ten years.

“There’s a compelling case for factory management to pick up the gauntlet and invest in taps, toilets and good hygiene for employees."

Ruth Loftus, WaterAid
Rainwater harvesting at Fakir Fashion. Image: WaterAid/Fabeha Monir

Ruth Loftus, WaterAid’s senior private sector advisor, said: “These investments increase health and productivity of employees, increase worker morale, reduce absenteeism and help prevent diseases - all of which mean lower operational costs, ultimately enhancing a company’s bottom line.

“There’s a compelling case for factory management to pick up the gauntlet and invest in taps, toilets and good hygiene for their employees. The participating factories are showcasing the business benefits, generating a return on their investment, aligning with regulation and reputational expectations and potentially driving change for millions of people through the companies they supply – many of which are global brands.

“The human stories reveal the less tangible, yet priceless value of investing in decent WASH facilities in communities and in the workplace."

New hand washing facility at Kings International tannery, Uttar Pradesh, India. Image: WaterAid/ Anindito Mukherjee

India is the fifth largest exporter of leather goods globally. Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest apparel exporter, with its ready-made garments sector accounting for 83% of the country’s export earnings.

Kings International tannery in Unnao, northern India, struggled with employee absenteeism, particularly during monsoons when flooding causes contamination of water, leading to a rise in diarrhoea and dysentery cases.

The factory joined WaterAid’s project, installing toilets and handwashing points, and renovating water stations. Hygiene messages and jingles played near the toilets, and hygiene promotional films were screened.

Amir Ausaf, factory manager of Kings International, said: “Either workers were ill or their children and family members were. Either way, absenteeism was high during those times.

“Now, absenteeism during seasonal changes has reduced, which means our productivity has gone up. It is simple logic: if our workers are healthy, we stand to gain from it. Industries must invest in the health of workers.”

At Fakir Fashion, Bangladesh, single mother Moushumi explains: “In my locality, we didn’t have access to clean water and the only toilet was unhygienic, always shared with many.

"When we finally got a toilet in our community and running water and a hand-washing station in our factory, it was a massive relief for us. We no longer have to stand in a queue for hours.

"Now I don’t lose money for my absenteeism and the money I had to spend for medical reasons is now going to my son’s education.”

Moushumi at work inside Fakir Fashion. Image: WaterAid/ Fabeha Monir

Tim Wainwright, chief executive of WaterAid said: “As climate change is set to drive erratic weather events such as flooding, droughts and cyclones, investing in WASH is fundamental to safeguarding people already living on the frontline of climate change.

"The business landscape is changing and with the provenance of products becoming increasingly important to the consumer, business leaders now have huge potential to make a significant difference to the lives of millions.”

The reports can be viewed at https://www.wateraid.org/us/bo...