As ETI launches new guidance on Freedom of Association, Stirling Smith explains why business should welcome trade unions.
I've just been reading the annual report of the International Trade Union Confederation on violations of trade union rights. It’s grim. In many countries, being a trade union organiser is asking to get yourself beaten up or shot. In Guatemala, nearly one trade unionist is murdered every month. Violence or intimidation is a problem in a quarter of countries examined.
Here in Britain, it's not as bad as that, although – as we have been seeing in the press recently – you may find blacklists of union activists in the construction industry. But why are companies wasting their money on hiring thugs or using blacklists when they should be embracing the business case for trade unions? Yes, trade unions are good for your business.
As I mentioned in a blog here before, unionised workplaces have less accidents than non-unionised workplaces. Research also shows that in the UK, workers in unionised establishments are more likely to receive training. And we are all in favour of more safety and more training, aren't we?
But the real argument is this: workers in unionised establishments are more loyal to their employer than workers in non-unionised establishments. Go back and read that again. It seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? The academics who have studied this have an explanation. They call it Voice or Exit. If you're not happy in your office or factory, the experts say, you have two choices. If you have a voice in trying to make things better then you're more likely to stay. If you don't have a voice then you leave. And the most effective form of voice is a trade union. It's not me saying this (disclosure: I am a trade unionist); it's not the British TUC saying this. It's independent academic research.
There's a huge and growing industry in the UK of workplace engagement consultants. It has been recognised that where workers are more engaged, it results in improved company performance. But strangely, companies seem reluctant to go for the most proven and effective way of increasing worker engagement, which is trade union membership.
I have a vision of massed choirs of company directors doing their own cover version of the Meatloaf 1993 single "I'd do anything for love (but I won't do that)". The corporate version goes "I'd do anything for worker engagement (but I won't have trade unions)”. Okay, it doesn't scan very well, and it won't get 8 million views on YouTube like the original version, but you get the idea - if you are a certain age.
The majority of ethical trade staff do not have much direct experience of trade unions; this is hardly surprising, because in the private sector in Britain only 14% of employees are union members. And it is also true that industrial relations laws are complex, to put it kindly, in many supplying countries.
I was once delivering an ETI training course and we were discussing the Base Code clause on trade unions. A delegate said “But that’s political”, as if somehow the normal rules do not apply to this clause. It’s time we stopped treating this as an embarrassment, or an optional part of the Base Code that we can drop if suppliers kick off.
And to help you, gentle readers, there is new guidance from ETI on Freedom of Association. Like all ETI guidance, it is designed to be a practical document explaining some of the trickier issues that corporate members will come across. And to debunk some myths.
The ETI training team also plans to develop some workshops for members who wish to go into the issue in greater depth - and understand the arguments they need to put to suppliers. Look out for these next year, and I promise you won't be asked to sing any Meatloaf songs.