Over the years, ETI has helped bridge a big gap between its member trade unions and companies. But there is still a long way to go before ETI company-union collaboration becomes the norm, rather than the exception.
Yet the arguments for bridging this gap are compelling - and I've come across a bullet proof one compiled by Hugh Robertson, one of my colleagues at the TUC. His report, title: "The union effect: How unions make a difference to health and safety" makes a simple point over and over again: workplaces with unions are much safer.
The report references study after study that show that the work of trade union health and safety representatives leads to fewer injuries, fewer days off, greater reporting of accidents and a positive safety culture in the organisation. Aside from saving lives, the UK's 150,000 trade union safety reps also save the economy hundreds of millions of pounds.
Do these lessons apply to the developing world? Absolutely, and especially where workplaces are more dangerous and labour inspectorates are overwhelmed. To take one example: colleagues at Prospect, a TUC affiliated-union covering professionals, told me how their sister organisation, the Kenya Electrical Workers Union (KETAWU), turned around the industry's appalling health and safety record by drawing on its network of health and safety reps to negotiate with management, and run a public awareness campaign. The results were remarkable: fatalities in the sector plummeted from a peak of 113 a few years ago to just three last year.
Why such fantastic results, I hear you ask? Well firstly, workers know their workplace better than anyone, especially if they are empowered and working together to identify risks. Secondly, unions make sure that their safety representatives are properly trained (The TUC alone trained 10,000 people last year). Thirdly, and most importantly, by speaking with one collective voice, workers have the confidence to speak up to management about problems and how to solve them.
In short, unions overcome three critical and overlapping workplace governance problems: the profound power imbalances between workers and management; managerial conflicts of interest, especially short-termism leading to underinvestment in the workforce, and the very imperfect flow of information from the factory floor to the managers' office.
Attempts to tackle health and safety that don't involve unions typically don't overcome these problems. Once a tile factory manager said to me in all seriousness that he promoted safe working by putting funny warning messages on the beer coasters at the local pub where his workers drank. What a depressing confirmation of a study highlighted in the TUC report above that found that: "arrangements that lead to the highest injury rates are where management deals with Occupation Health and Safety without consultation."
And aside from bosses with beer coasters, what of worker committees under the thumb of management? An auditor wielding a clip-board? An anonymous suggestions box? Even a shiny code of conduct pinned up in the tea room? None of these will be anywhere near as effective as allowing workers to monitor and improve their own working conditions.
This positive 'union effect' holds true for nearly every workplace issue. A recently published ILO report on Freedom of Association and Development , written by consultants Ergon Associates, highlights how respect for freedom of association leads to fairer wages, improved access to social protection, transparent and fairer working conditions, less discrimination and harassment, better training and education opportunities, responsible restructuring, better dispute resolution and higher levels of productivity.
So if you're an ethical trade manager, next time you're on a trip to one of your sourcing countries, why don't you meet the local union or union reps in the workplace and talk about how to build and spread the ‘union effect'.
ETI members can also make use of this ETI briefing, Benefits of working with Trade Unions.
Find out more about ethical trade and Union rights at work