The majority of the garment industry’s workers are women – up to 80 per cent by some estimates. Yet, in booming factory towns like Dhaka, Bangladesh, there are few, if any, childcare options.

Despite a legal obligation to provide daycare for young children, most factories don’t comply with the law. Many of Bangladesh’s workers are migrants from rural area – without networks of family or friends – and women must often choose between unemployment or working while leaving their children behind to fend for themselves in slums. With Bangladesh reigning as the cheapest place to produce clothing in the world, the government and the multinational businesses that depend on low-cost labour have yet to tackle the root of poor working conditions.

One social entrepreneur, however, has steadily made progress partnering with communities and factories to improve the lives of women workers and their children. Ashoka Fellow Suraiya Haque founded Phulki in 1991, and today the organisation operates nearly 90 community-based, and 25 factory-based daycares in Dhaka. Caretakers at the daycares are trained in early childhood development, nutrition, and hygiene. And each month, Phulki meets with mothers – and occasionally fathers – for nutrition education, and offers trainings on labour, sexual, and reproductive rights. 

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Phulki means “spark” in Bangla. The name reflects the organisation’s broader mission to kindle the socio-economic development of female workers, and to serve as “a flicker of light to the lives of disadvantaged communities.” Its innovative model ultimately uses childcare services as a launching point to deliver life-saving, health-related information to all workers. With the consent of factory management, Phulki also conducts a health awareness initiative at factories. This year, 90,000 men and women workers completed the program.

The idea to launch Phulki began after Suraiya turned away a potential housemaid who was an ideal candidate, but had a child in tow.

“That haunted me,” Suraiya says, reflecting on her decision that day. Her experience awakened a desire to help mothers in similar scenarios.

Suraiya’s ideas were originally met with more than a little skepticism. People called her crazy, pointing out that she was a woman or that she didn’t know the first thing about childhood development. Having the odds stacked against her, however, only served to amplify her ambition. 

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“When I first began, I was driven mostly by my inner self,” Suraiya says. “I wanted to start a sustainable daycare for low-income women and prove to people that I wasn’t crazy.” She immersed herself in researching early childhood development, and, with the help of her two sons (who contributed their first month's salaries), Suraiya started her first daycare centre in her garage. 

After establishing several neighbourhood-based daycares, Suraiya discovered that many women employed in garment factories were unable to travel between work and the daycares to breastfeed their young children. Suraiya’s subsequent daycares became factory-based, ensuring that women wouldn’t have to relinquish critical child-rearing responsibilities in order to work.

To pioneer her idea, she first convinced mothers to trust the daycare centres as safe spaces by holding community meetings and fostering a dialogue. The next, more challenging stakeholder she convinced was the factories themselves.

“I kept in mind that this is a business community,” she explains. “I had to approach them like a business, not like a charity.” Speaking with factory management, she emphasised the value in investing in workers and the mutual benefits. For factories, work-based childcare means that workers who are also mothers are more productive, absent less often, and return to the job earlier from maternity leave.

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Today, Suraiya has established a cost-sharing model in which Phulki works with a factory to operate a daycare for six to 12 months, after which the factory can either assume management or pay Phulki to continue to do so. The costs are shared between factories and workers, which keeps the daycare financially sustainable and the quality of the care high. Factories in Phulki’s program have provided the space, start-up costs, and caretaker salaries, while mothers contribute toward food for the children and a small sum to cover operational costs. This cost-sharing model was recently featured in a Fabric of Change report on social entrepreneurs transforming the apparel industry.

Recently, a woman thanked Suraiya for the program. “That’s why I can now work and earn my living,” she said. “I’m independent.”

Today, Phulki is recognized as one of the foremost early childhood development organizations in Bangladesh. Recently, UNICEF and the Bangladeshi Ministry have made plans to scale its model throughout Bangladesh. The fact that government programs are embracing the approach suggests that Suraiya’s innovation is not only scaling and reaching more workers, but that it’s beginning to intersect with changes at a policy level and establishing patterns that can lead to systemic change.

- This article was written by Victoria Gaffney for Ashoka Changemakers and Fabric of Change, a challenge seeking to support innovations for a fair and sustainable apparel industry. Follow Victoria on twitter @ tori_gaffney

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