Cauca is one of the most deprived regions in Colombia and has historically suffered as a result violence from the civil war that blighted the country in recent decades. It is also home to a large number of descendants of the enslaved African population, many of whom experience poverty and discrimination in the labour market.
In 1998, Wavin, the global pipe and infrastructure solutions maker, headquartered in the Netherlands, established a manufacturing plant in Guachené, northern Cauca, an area with a high population of Afro-descendant people.
Embracing diversity and taking responsibility for the company’s impact are key tenets within the code of ethics of Wavin’s parent company Orbia.
With that in mind, and recognising the challenges faced by the local population, Wavin set out to invest in skills and community development, collaborate with local suppliers and ensure inclusivity in its hiring and employment practices in a long-term, multi-million dollar plan aimed a empowering the local population.
What is Wavin?
Part of the wider Orbia Group, Wavin is a provider of innovative water, heating, cooling and sewage solutions to the construction and infrastructure industries. With 12,000 employees in 40+ countries worldwide, the company works with city leaders, engineers, planners and installers to tackle sustainability challenges including water supply, sanitation and building climate-resilient cities.
Summarising Wavin’s approach
While taking the opportunity to train and employ more local afro-descendant workers was an important factor in Wavin’s approach to empowering the community, it also recognized the importance of having a positive impact on the local area in a wider sense. To that end, its strategy incorporated three key elements:
- Training and inclusion of local workers: Developing the capabilities of those in the area, bringing them into its workforce and providing them with an inclusive and supportive working environment
- Inclusion of local ventures in the value chain: Ensuring that the money it spends on inputs for the facility remains in the local area by working with local suppliers
- Building the municipality through public-private partnerships: Investing in local education and sanitation facilities in partnership with municipal government
The delivery of this project was led by Wavin’s Social Inclusion Programme, which reports to Wilco Otte, the company’s global sustainability director. It was also carried out by Wavin’s local team, with the support of the director of Wavin Colombia, as well as the local HR and finance teams.
Training and inclusion of local workers
Key to Wavin’s aim of empowering and developing members of the local community was increasing the number of local afro-descendant workers in its workforce, while giving them the skills they needed to make a success of their career at the company.
This was a challenge because of a lack of previous experience, education and training in the area – partly because other companies relied on workers from large cities farther away, meaning many locals had in the past had little opportunity to work in a commercial or factory environment.
To counteract this, Wavin has invested $3.6m since 1999 in training and education for employees and their children, delivering a total of more than 300,000 training hours – delivering assistance to 113 workers, helping fund university places for 76 children and supporting 489 children to go to school – allowing many of them to gain technical and professional degrees.
Much of this was delivered in partnership with state organisations. Wavin made alliances with key institutions such as SENA, the national learning service, a public institution for technical and educational training technology and the Compensation Fund, a social enterprise which seeks to improve the quality of life of workers and their families, to develop work-focused training programmes.
This was based at SENA’s plastics division, with support from technicians and managers at other Wavin plants in Colombia, with training delivered both in classrooms at SENA and Wavin and in practice at the Guachené facility. The curriculum included:
- Reading and writing
- Personal development
Local employees were offered indefinite contracts, allowing them a greater degree of job security than they might find in roles at other companies. While Wavin does not discriminate based on ethnic background as part of its recruitment process, it has made a number of efforts to reach out to the local afro-descendant community to encourage them to join its workforce.
Some of these have included:
- Alliances with local mayors, employment agencies and local entities to publicise job opportunities
- Contacting community leaders, especially in rural areas, to reach people looking for work
- Engaging with local media
- Use of sounds cars – a stereo mounted on a vehicle that transmits messages on the streets – to expand the reach of advertising to local people
Diversity and inclusion at Wavin
In common with the whole organisation, Wavin’s Guachené factory adheres to a number of standard practices and rules that ensure diversity and inclusion are at the forefront.
All staff are to be treated equally regardless of gender, marital status, age, religion, race, physical ability, political preference, socioeconomic level or sexual orientation, or any other condition. This rule apply across all facets of employment, including but not limited to:
- Talent Acquisition
- Performance Management
- Compensation & Rewards
- Work arrangements
- Talent Management
- Succession Planning
HR defines and measures KPIs around diversity and inclusion, but responsibility for adhering to these principles falls to everybody, including managers who are expected to create an environment that values different ideas and perspective and support all employees regardless of their background to thrive, and the workforce in general, who have a responsibility to treat others with dignity, respect and to be inclusive at all times.
Inclusion of local ventures in the value chain
Waving identified the opportunity to spread its social impact well beyond its own employees to the wider community by ensuring that it makes a point of working with local suppliers where possible rather than shipping in suppliers from around the region.
The company has formed partnerships with Minga Mujer and Mulata, local women’s organisations, which supply food for workers in the plant, uniforms and other support services. Some of the members of these organisations are family members of those working in the plant itself, meaning that Wavin’s impact on these families is even greater. Their success in working with Wavin has also led to opportunities to supply other companies in the area.
Developing the local area through public-private partnerships
Further to providing employment opportunities to local people and suppliers, Wavin recognized the need to help develop the local area that would support the lives of its workers, their families and the community more generally.
Working with local and national government, other local employers, NGOs and the likes of UNICEF, the company has helped to implement social investment projects in infrastructure such as sanitation systems, schools and water distribution, investing $1.4 through public-private partnerships over the period.
These were structured according to a budget approved by Wavin in agreement with the local municaplity according to local needs. As well as financing, Wavin provided technical assistance with its engineers and technicians through products, time and training.
By investing in skills training, engaging with local suppliers and investing in the community, Wavin has delivered a substantial social impact in an area previously blighted by poverty and violence. Specific benefits arising from the programme have included:
- The proportion of local workers employed at Wavin’s Guachené facility has risen from 60% in 1999 to 92% in 2020
- Of 23 leadership roles at the site, 11 are now held by local afro-descendant people from Cauca
- Through working with the Minger Mujer and Mulata organisations, the plant now sources more than 22% of its indirect materials and services from local community ventures
At the same time, this transformation has occurred alongside strong commercial performance at the plant, which is now ranked among Wavin’s Latin American operations for productivity. This has demonstrated the mutual compatibility of commercial and sustainability objectives and the plant has been held up as a model for ethnic integration within Wavin, with plans to implement similar programmes in other regions.
In the local area, Wavin has delivered significant social impact, with the completion of a number of key projects including:
- A sewer system serving 5,000 people in Guachené
- The building and refurbishment of seven schools
- A project for high-risk youth gang members to help them rejoin civil life
- An agroforestry system project to improve the income of peasant communities
- Providing resources for sports and cultural projects in the region
Advice for others
Having successfully implemented its strategy of supporting the local community in Cauca, Wavin shared some learnings it picked up along the way:
- Tackling prejudice: Breaking down stereotypes and prejudices is vital to be consistent with the company’s diversity and inclusion policy. This has allowed the business to contribute to the social progress of the communities in which it operates and contribute to local economic growth, while at the same time, to establish a virtuous circle for both the company and the community.
- Long-term view: Local development is a long-term process that needs to be based on trust, collaborative work, and continuous dialogue. The businesses must recognise that results will not be immediate, and that initiatives like this need full support from the business to maintain.
Having successfully delivered a range of benefits to the local population, Wavin is continuing to develop the area with plans to forge new alliances with public-private entities and more investment in local infrastructure including further improvement of sewer systems.