Tasmiah Tabassum Rahman
Good morning and thank you everyone for attending today’s session “Enhancing Employment Opportunities for Youth Bangladesh’s Retail Sector”. Today’s discussion will be around three key areas 1. Retail sales skills training and its value for the private sector 2. Female Inclusion in the retail sector - challenges and solutions and 3. Inclusion of persons with disabilities in the retail workforce - challenges faced and potential solutions.
Joydeep Sinha Roy
In 2020, BRAC Skills Development Programme piloted the Progressing the In 2020, BRAC Skills Development Programme piloted the Progressing the Retail sector by Improving Decent Employment (PRIDE) project. Under this project, we developed the country’s first Bangladesh Technical Education Board (BTEB) accredited retail sales training module. We provide retail sales training to marginalised youth. In addition, we are forming partnerships with the private sector for apprenticeship and job placement of our programme participants. The training is now being provided in Dhaka, Chattogram, Khulna, and Sylhet. So far we have reached over 877 youth. 54% of our graduates have already been placed in jobs. By 2023, we aim to train 5200 youth of whom 60% will be females and 7% will be persons with disabilities. This project is being funded by IKEA Foundation and UBS Optimus Foundation.
Syed Nasim Manzur
Over 6 million people are currently working in the formal retail sector. However, the entire retail ecosystem employs a lot more than just this number. The Center of Excellence in Leadership (COEL) was started due to industry-based demand. Around 2007 there was a huge order for shoes from abroad in Bangladesh. Due to this demand, a number of new factories opened up across the country, and a large portion of the workforce switched their jobs from one factory to another despite receiving training at their former workplaces. Recruiting another employee in that place and then training them again was time-consuming. To keep up with the industry competitiveness, we set up COEL which would give us access to a pool of skilled workforce. The initial setup comprised a few used machinery from the Apex factory. The COEL journey is now over 14 years and over the course of time, we have trained about 22 thousand people and over 69% of them are now employed. However, it is important to note that the market situation is constantly changing and training programs should adapt according to this change in order to sustain. For example, we can now see that youth are no longer interested in working in factories and prefer alternative trades like retail.
If we consider the case of India, the retail sector contributes to 10% of their GDP and 8% of total employment. So the retail sector is contributing to FDI and working towards employment creation, economic growth, and inclusion. About 14% of university graduates are now unemployed and they do not prefer working in factories or the agriculture sector. They think about working in organisations like Unimart, Meena Bazar, or Apex. Retail is a good space for people like these to work in.
But due to a negative perception about these jobs and pressure from their families to undertake civil service jobs, jobs in banks etc they are usually not able to undertake these jobs. It is important to advocate and create an overall social impact and change this perception.
New employees at Aarong undergo a one-day training at the outlets. After employing learners from the SDP retail sales project, we have observed that they are more confident. This is because they are able to perceive a career path as a result of this training. They have a mindset to learn more as they believe there is a lot to learn at the outlets. Since they already have undertaken basic training, they are able to catch other (newer) aspects of the trade easily. In a sense, this is very good for us (retail players) but on other hand, the training is very lengthy and we need to consider if this is necessary for us or not - we can discuss this matter with the government. Skilled human resources are an asset for us and getting them helps us to save our other resources.
The Aarong journey began in 1978 and all of our sales associates at that time were females. Aarong now employs over 900 employees and 60% of them are females. We cannot imagine Aarong without its female workforce. We feel that our female employees are better at customer service. This is probably because of the nature of the products that are being sold at the customer outlets. Perhaps females have more understanding of and interest in the types of products that are being sold at Aarong. Our male employees are more comfortable in doing heavy work at the outlets such as carton lifting. Our female employees are also able to do this kind of work but sometimes may need a little bit of help. Our female employees have brought about major positive changes in Aarong. As an employer, we need to ensure a good work environment for all employees.
For example, we provide transportation facilities for our employees at night. This is not an easy task for retailers. As an alternative, retailers can think about forming associations with CNG owners to drop their employees home after work if it is late. Additionally, Aarong has strong policies against sexual harassment, adequate washroom facilities, and strong safeguarding policies. It is important to have washroom facilities for all genders and which are accommodative for persons with disabilities.
One of the biggest challenges that we used to face a few years earlier is that youth used to work in retail stores as a “stepping stone” before getting employment and better positions in other sectors. They were not very dedicated to their work or careers in the retail sector. Training programmes such as BRAC SDP’s retail sales training is helping us in this regard because the new entrants coming for jobs now bring in some knowledge with them regarding the retail sector. Providing little guidance is enough for these employees. We have a lot of female employees in our outlets but we do face certain challenges in employing females in this sector such as security and safety. The safety of female staff is our utmost responsibility but it is a little challenging to address the entire ecosystem. For example, shifts end at 10.00 pm and it is a risk for them to stay out late at night because of the transportation conditions. In many cases, females coming in from far places for work do not have proper accommodation as people are not willing to rent houses to the so, unfortunately, they have to live in very unfavorable conditions. Also if many of them want to stay together, there is another social taboo against it. So we encourage entrepreneurs to set up hostels or accommodation for working females who come from far places to their workplaces. This will also encourage more women to participate in the workforce.
Mosaraf Hossain Mazumder
We have employed 11 learners from this project to our outlets in Sylhet. Because they have already been trained, we do not have to further train them. We have outlets in Cumilla and Sylhet. We hope that the scope of this project will increase and we will also be benefitted from it. We are able to find female employees willing to carry out office work but not willing to work as sales associates. This is because in Sylhet the peak sales hour is later in the evening. For example, during Eid, shops remain open even up to 3.00 am. This is particularly challenging for women.
Additionally, in Dhaka, there is ample accommodation for people who are staying away from their families for work, but this is not the case outside of Dhaka. Similarly, youth in Dhaka receive training but outside of Dhaka, there are few training opportunities for youth. And this needs to be improved.
Earlier the employees recruited were very new to this sector and not very skilled. But from BRAC, we now receive a continuous flow of skilled entrants and we do not have to spend too much time training them. But we still face some challenges, for example, the nature of work demands that the employees work for more than 8 hours a day but this makes it difficult for students working part-time here to continue both their jobs as well as studies etc. To solve this, we can come forward and reduce the working hours to six hours for students who are working part-time. Also, the training is very areas-based and residents of one area do not prefer to go outside of that place to work. For example, there is a training center in Abdullahpur, and learners from this center do not want to be placed outside of Uttara. Challenges like these need to addressed. In addition, if accommodation facilities were available for students at the training centers itself, it would be possible for students from all over the country to undertake these training sessions.
Nure Alam Shimu
Electronic retail organisations are comparatively different from other retail organisations. After recruitment of an employee in electronic retail, it is important to train him/her on product knowledge for a considerably long period of time. This is because our customers seek detailed information regarding products before purchasing. Our male sales associates keep themselves updated about the products and are able to provide information to customers effectively. But the enthusiasm is a little less in our female employees.
When we first launched Gadget and Gear, there were many female employees who worked as sales associates in our outlets. Gradually this number declined. But at the same time, there are a lot of female employees who work in our offices in various departments and positions such as accounts, graphics design, digital marketing and social media etc. Our entire customer service department comprises only female employees. One of the biggest challenges that we face while recruiting female sales associates for our outlets is the unavailability of washroom facilities for female employees in the buildings where our outlets are located.
The retail sector is continuously growing. We want to include female employees in our workforce but we do not find any interested applicants. Right now we have 92 showrooms all over Bangladesh, and 18 of them are in Dhaka. We have over 411 sales associates and of them only 11 are female. We try to provide adequate washroom facilities for our employees. One of the major challenges we face while recruiting female employees is a lack of knowledge of product and technology. It is mandatory to have knowledge of certain product features to work in electronics retail. But this is not possible if a student does not have at least an Honors degree. It is important for at least 3 out of 4 staff in the showroom to have knowledge (technology-related) of the products in the showroom. Another challenge that we face is that most of our employees want to work in Dhaka and only 2-3% of them are ready to be posted outside Dhaka.
We want more female inclusion in the retail workforce. 17% of our staff at Meena Bazar is female. A lot of women are working very hard in the RMG sector so. We need a minimum level of educational qualification to work in the retail sector. One of the challenges that we face in the grocery stores is that our sales associates do not personally use the products that are being sold off the shelves. For example they know about shampoos but do not use the higher end brands or other hair products such as conditioners. So for better customer services they must have a certain level of educational qualification.
It is not always sustainable for organisations to ensure safe transportations for female employees. This is particularly because of our social conditions. We need to work on improving the entire social system to ensure safety for women. It is important to provide gender sensitisation training. Also, it will be better specifically address each sector within the retail industry (for example clothing, electronics, food etc) during the course of the training period. It will also be helpful to identify which sector of the retail industry do people want to work in to provide more targeted and effective training. We encourage women to join our workforce. Since 2009, we have our in-house training from where we place trained graduates directly to our outlets. Half of our population is women, and we cannot move forward without their contribution. There is a high turnover in the retail sector due to which we have to recruit new staff and provide training all over again. So it is important that we consider the interest areas of the learners before training them for better retention.
Sohel Tanvir Khan
Our experience of working with persons with disabilities have been very positive. Initially when we took the initiative to recruit persons with disabilities in our workforce, a lot of people had their reservations. We were worried about how our customers would perceive this step, and what their reaction would be while being served by a person with disability. But our customers have been very supportive of our initiative and their reactions have been very positive so far. Some of them have even built very good relationships with our sales associates with disabilities. We have also observed that our staff with disabilities perform very well in their jobs. They are very hardworking and dedicated, and have been accepted very well by the customers of those respective outlets. We initially thought that we will face a lot of challenges to recruit persons with disabilities but that is not the case at all.
We have a 10% quota to hire staff with disabilities but we did not yet find enough applicants or candidates to fill this quota. We currently have 34 persons with disabilities working in our outlets. All of them are placed in our premium outlets in some selected areas. However, we are apprehensive about placing them in some outlets because we are not sure about how they will be accepted in those locations. We do not want to take any risks right now in this regard.
When we recruit a new person with disability, we tag them with a “buddy” who helps them to learn about the job and stays by their side until they are ready to work independently. This has reaped excellent benefits.
Bangladesh Business and Disability Network is a relatively new organisation. We act as a bridge between potential employees and employers. We are working towards creating employment opportunities for persons with disabilities in many industries. In order to recruit persons with disabilities on a large scale, reasonable accommodation must be created for them in their workplaces. We need to work on the entire social ecosystem to bring about this change. As people, even we are not able to carry out all tasks. Even we have preferences as to which work we will do or are comfortable doing. This is the same with persons with disabilities. Many times we have received requests like “Please give us two persons with a speech impediment whom we can recruit.” But the truth is you cannot choose a person’s disability while recruiting. It is important to consider the skills that they bring in with them during recruitment.
We (BBDN) want to work with you (private sector) in these areas. On a different note, I would like to mention that you should be inclusive not only during staff recruitment but also while providing services. When you make your outlets inclusive, at that time your entire establishment will become inclusive.
Generation Unlimited is a multi-stakeholder partnership platform. A lot of companies, industry associations, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Labour and Employment are a part of this platform. It brings partners together to create youth employment opportunities and entrepreneurs. Recently, GenU has observed the necessity to create Youth Action teams to implement their activities. To change youth perception and to promote retail sales as a career, we can create and mobilise youth action teams.
International Labour Organisation (ILO) is creating strategies with the government to create employment opportunities for youth. Currently, we do not have a strategy for youth employment. But there are a lot of policies in place. We can bring the private sector together to discuss these issues.
Also, there are youth who have never imagined a career in organisations like Unilever, how can we take the market-driven training to them? That is why we need to form partnerships with other organisations and companies who can help us work towards creating youth employment and entrepreneurs.
We have observed in our survey that most of the retail organisations are new and this sector is evolving. Due to this, the sector has undergone rapid changes. But it is quite surprising that female participation in this sector’s workforce is only 8%. We have surveyed all types of retail stores, not just supershops. To bring about a positive change in the entire retail industry, the first steps need to be taken by bigger organisations at the top of the sector for a trickle-down effect. It will not be possible to bring about this without the participation of larger retail stores. We have also observed that a large number of retailers are not willing to provide formalised training to their employees.
Training is being provided by electronics, mobile phone and accessories segments and the nature of this training is mostly informal. This is because, without proper training, it will not be possible to sell these products. 44.3% of retailers said that they do not want to provide training to their employees. They have stated that “After receiving training from me, the employee goes to another organisation when they find better opportunities.”
While discussing the inclusivity of females and persons with disabilities in the workplace, it is important to create good working conditions and reasonable accommodations for them. As a customer, I believe that it is important to provide training to retail employees. About 12-13% of Honors graduates remain unemployed. This is because they are not motivated to undertake careers in other fields. They are not ready to undertake any other jobs except for BCS jobs. Youth must be encouraged to undertake a career in the retail sector. This sector is not yet well-recognised by the government.
Formally over 6 million youth work in this sector but in reality, the number is much higher than that. Since we are talking about a 360-hour training, is there any research about how much time is required for training in which sectors? I am not sure if 360-hour training is required. Some sectors may require more hours and others a little less. A number of laws and policies exist to include women and persons with disabilities in the workforce. We can see if we apply these laws to our organisations or whether we need to bring about some changes to these policies. Just because employees leave after receiving training does not mean that employees will be made to work without training.
Nearly 70% of the trainees have passed HSC. Do they have the same tendency to work only in Dhaka as their honors-graduated counterparts?
On a different note, all of you are well-established retail organisations, and are well connected with people. Please take steps to promote respect for all especially women among the mass people. Take steps to promote ending violence against women. If you need help with advocacy, MCCI is here and we can work definitely together if you want.
About 10 years ago, whenever we went for shopping to supershops it was observed that there were always new sales associates in place of old ones. Now when we go to Unimart or Shwapno, we see the same sales associates for a long time. This proves that the retail scenario is changing, and is gradually becoming stable. Previously retail jobs were seen as “stop gaps” where unemployed graduates or students would work for some time until they found better job opportunities. This scenario has now changed. Now is the perfect time to recognise it as a different industry. Many sales associates are promoted to better positions. And many people are now able to see a career progression pathway in this sector and are motivated to undertake jobs in this sector.
There is a parlour in Banani with 36 female employees. The owner of the parlour has managed accommodation facilities for all her employees. If a small or medium sized organisation can do this then definitely bigger retail organisations can manage the same.
We must come out of the negative mindset that “women will not be able to”. If we believe then we can definitely achieve it. In addition, we must also think about creating inclusive workplaces for gender diverse individuals.
● Stronger policies and good working environment must be created to include more female participation in the retail workforce
● Areas of interest in retail must be identified and youth must be trained accordingly
● Multiple facets of retail sales must be kept in mind while developing the training model
● Besides men and women, transgender and persons with disabilities must be included in the retail workforce
● Adequate washroom facilities for women must be established in workplaces
● Reducing the retail sales training duration must be considered
● Transportation facilities for female employees must be ensured at especially at night
● The retail sector must be recognised as a key contributor to employment, Foreign Direct Investment, and economic growth of the country
● Apart from government jobs, employment in other sectors must be promoted to youth
● Steps must be taken to ensure safe accommodation facilities for women working in the retail sector.