Financial security is an essential part of anyone’s livelihood, yet 2.5 billion adults around the world don’t use formal financial services to save or borrow money. Empowering the working poor with proper knowledge and skill—and connecting them to financial products and services—can help them manage money more effectively, invest in economic opportunities and reduce risks related to illness or loss of employment.

In 2003, we partnered with CARE International to launch a microfinance program with one of our largest apparel suppliers, The YoungOne Corporation—a garment manufacturer that operates 14 factories in Bangladesh. With initial funding from Timberland, CARE and a local organization called MAMATA embarked on a project to improve the lives of 24,000 YoungOne garment workers in the Chittagong Export Processing Zone (CEPZ).

In response to complaints of robbery on paydays, the program provided savings booths inside the factory, where employees could make deposits and withdrawals in the safety of the workplace. In addition, the program allowed workers access to small loans for health care, education or income—generating activities to improve living conditions for themselves and their families.

Encouraged by the CEPZ program, Businesses for Social Responsibility (BSR) created the HERfinance initiative that helps empower women financially around the globe. The initiative provides essential training on budgeting, saving and using formal financial services and relies upon a peer educator model that uses workers, primarily women, to promote the training.  This peer educator model has already achieved results for BSR’s HERproject which addresses women’s health.

“I’ve seen the power of peer mentoring,” says Colleen Vien, Timberland’s Sustainability Director. “Meeting these courageous, committed, trail-blazing women was a highlight of my career—one which inspired me to find more opportunities to empower women workers in our supply chain.”

Over the years, we have seen worker retention and morale increase at YoungOne through our previous microfinancing program. Despite management’s initial concern to the contrary, we’ve seen that factory investment in the well-being of workers can result in increased productivity, higher quality products and supplier resilience and reliability.

For example, Sultanan Yasmin Kohinoor, a YoungOne employee from a poor family, lost her parents at a young age, but nevertheless studied hard and worked her way to the Workers’ Representation and Welfare Committee at YoungOne. She credits the CEPZ project staff for helping her develop her skills for facilitation and negotiation—and for making her a better leader.

Similarly, Arifa, a field organizer from the garment workers’ community claims that, “We feel we are much more confident and are better able to plan for our futures. Our decision-making abilities have improved because we now have a better understanding of savings, credit, profit and risk.”