One factory worker who graduated from the Adult Literacy Programme (ALP) run by National Foods Limited (NFL) even went as far as saying that he feels as if all his life he had been blind and now, after the programme, he had got sight for the first time. Another expressed his newly acquired literacy capability as freedom from bondage. A third, a female, described her ability to read post-programme as art awakening; joyous but in one respect also painful. Because now she realises how much she had been taken advantage of in everyday life matters by others who exploited her inability to read or write, Adult literacy Is not about advanced education at an adult age. This is perhaps not even possible, given the fact that according advanced education would require a lot of time and the majority of illiterate adults are from the lower income segments, who cannot afford to stop work to pursue higher education. Of course the ALP enables them to continue with part-time education to perhaps a secondary school level1 which itself would substantially improve their livelihood further.
Some eight years ago, In 2000, Abdul Majeed, the Chairman of National Foods Limited met with Rayed Afzal, the founder of Literate Pakistan Foundation, an organisation imparting education to illiterate adults. It was a decisive meeting, for at the end of it Abdul Majeed had decided to initiate a programme to provide basic education to the largely Illiterate and semi-skilled labour working in the company's factories. To say that Majeed was motivated by altruistic considerations would not be incorrect. A self-made man himself, he strongly felt it was his moral responsibility to educate the people who worked for him and gave their best to the business he and his friend Waqar Hasan had set up.
By this time National Foods had grown from humble beginnings in 1970 as a single ingredient spices company, into a multi-category food company, producing over 110 products (over 250 today) and employing almost 1.500 employees, including 1000 contract workers. Thus was launched the Adult Literacy Programme that has grown over the years both in its scope and its coverage.
A number of corporate sector organisations are supporting education in Pakistan at various levels, from adoption of government schools, to sponsorship of schools operated by NGOs like The Citizens Foundation (TCF) and CARE, to offering scholarships for higher education at various institutions and including top-rated ones like the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) In Karachi and the LUMS in Lahore, All such initiatives are to be lauded because these are helping to bridge the yawning gap in our education system, caused by grossly Insufficient government attention to this vitally important sector. But the possible drawback with philanthropic support is often that it is not sustainable after a few years, as priorities for the philanthropic corporate may and do change for various reasons and their budget for such social action may well be diverted in time to more 'newsworthy' causes.
Thus a better model for the long term is a CSR model whereby the support to education or for that matter any other worthy cause, has a strong linkage into the business of the corporate sponsor. This ensures the continuity of the support as an ongoing programme, as it in turn gives hack to the company's business also on an ongoing basis. The Adult Literacy Programme scores high on this count. Let us examine how.
A factory employing a largely illiterate labour force still expects that its labour will follow rules and regulations and standard operating procedures put in place to ensure consistent quality of product, meeting a set of minimum requirements. These procedures are communicated to the labour force through training, verbal and printed instructions and signage placed at strategic locations to create high recall. The procedures may be required by local or national laws by international standards like ISO or by foreign buyers (like EU) regulations in the case of exports. At a minimum a company may formulate and institute its own standard operating procedures that seek not only to maintain high product quality but also serve to control wastage, ensure higher output or productivity and reduce or control other undesirable human resource related issues, like downtime due to any accidents at the workplace.
It should be quite obvious that even a semi-literate worker will be able to understand and comply with the regulations and procedures in place far better than an illiterate worker. Even a simple task, for example, of inserting a product the right way up into a package can be a challenge to the illiterate worker, especially if both ends look the same and the distinction has to be made on the basis of lettering or text. Example: a bar of soap which must be inserted into its wrapper with the engraved brand name on the bar being the same way 'up' as the brand name on the wrapper into which it is going. As the illiterate worker cannot even distinguish even between a single letter being 'up' or 'down', he or she is more liable to make mistakes. Perhaps a simplistic example but, nevertheless, a valid one to illustrate the point.
Think also in terms of worker safety. Yes, a factory management may train all labour on safety procedures. But still, safety signage is placed all over the premises as a constant reminder which studies have shown is essential to create frequent recall. Some signage may be simple graphics which presumably even an illiterate person will understand. But of necessity others need to be simple text based or at least text included with graphics.
And this is not all. At National Foods are examples of workers who have gone through the ALP and have actually been able to rise within the organisation to levels they could not have been dreamt of before. Bashir Masih, an employee of NFL since 1988 and based in the SITE factory, is proud that he has risen from a cleaner in the factory to being a Janitorial Supervisor under the administration department, after successfully going through the Adult Literacy Programme and subsequently meeting the promotion criteria.
An ALP is also good CSR at a holistic societal level. A literate worker is more inclined to educate his on her children, thus starting off education of the next generation at an age when it should ideally start off. A more literate society pays back into the company's business in several ways. For example, in terms of a more capable future workforce becoming available - and instances are common across industries where sons have followed fathers into the same company and often at a higher level than where their fathers had started off. A more literate society can also mean higher earnings and hence higher spending power.
The ALP of National Foods is being operated effectively with two strategic partners. The programme consists of four books (three Urdu and one basic arithmetic book) developed by the Literate Pakistan Foundation - one of the partners. This course is called Jugnoo Sabak and can be taught in a short span of three months at two hours per day for six days a week. On successful completion, a previously illiterate person can read and write Urdu and do simple arithmetic. This is possible via a special phonetic system of teaching.
The other partner, The Citizen's Foundation (TZF) was brought onboard by NFL in 2005 to provide much needed premises to expand the programme beyond NFL's own labour force. Thus, TCF schools (and teachers) came into the equation for holding the ALP classes in poor communities. The tripartite partnership is working with enviable results, TCF provides the premises which are mostly free during the evenings when the regular school children have finished for the day and the teachers, who are trained by LPF. NFL picks up the tab for the books and for stipends to the teachers and other miscellaneous expenses.
Thus starting off in National Foods factories, the ALP has been running for the past three years: the fourth phase has now started in Karachi. Normally two programmes per year are feasible. Most centers are for women and in the three phases so far, over a thousand women have graduated.
Now the broad plan for this year is to activate a total of 100 TCF Literary Centers (TLCs) and run 4 sessions per year in each of these, with a target to educate 12,000 adult learners on an annual basis.
Once thought by some cynics as pursuing a lost generation, the Adult Literacy Programme has proved itself to be common sense CSR with far-reaching and long-term sustainable benefits.
(The writer is CEO of Asiatic Public Relations Network Ltd)