Stirling Smith, ETI trainer and regular visitor to Bangladesh, explains what links Star Wars, ghost stories and a cure for insomnia to social dialogue. And he explains their links to ready-made garment factories in and around Dhaka.
Earlier this month I was in Dhaka for a workshop that brought together representatives from brands and new trainers for the second phase of a project on social dialogue.
The first ‘pilot’ phase of the social dialogue project ran in 10 factories.
Together they're called the Joint ETI, or JETI.
That's not to be confused with Jedi, “the mystical knightly order in the Star Wars films, trained to guard peace and justice in the Universe” (according to Wikipedia).
Mind you, ethical trade and social dialogue does bring about peace and justice in the universe.
Why jargon and why social dialogue?
As usual, early on in the workshop I stuck a flipchart on the wall and wrote JARGON at the top.
This is an invitation to anybody to shout out if there are any abbreviations or jargon words we use in the workshop that need explaining.
And immediately somebody asked, “what’s jargon?”
Because I had forgotten that there is no equivalent word in Bengali for jargon. It’s a rich and wonderful language, with an especially fine tradition of detective stories and ghost stories. But no word for jargon.
Still, we can explain what we mean by jargon and we did that. But then we need to explain the concept of social dialogue which is a bit more difficult.
There is an official ILO definition (at this point you might want to have a nap):
All types of negotiation, consultation or exchange of information between representatives of governments, employers and workers, on issues of common interest relating to economic and social policy.
We need to unpack that, and make it relevant to managers, trade unions and workers.
I've written a large tome for the ILO about social dialogue and I can honestly recommend it for insomnia. It’s not something you can get across through PowerPoint.
We need rules at work
In ETI's work in Bangladesh, we only focus on social dialogue within factories. So government isn’t involved.
Social dialogue is in essence, a way for managers and workers to sit down and talk through issues.
But this process needs rules. If it’s a dialogue, then it involves listening to each other and being prepared to change your mind about something. Social dialogue means managers need to accept that workers have a voice.
That’s a bit difficult for most managers in Bangladesh who tend to be adherents of McGregor’s X theory of running a factory.
They think that once you allow workers to have a voice, the next thing is a trade union and we definitely don’t want those!
If workers have no voice...
That’s when I tell a ghost story.
Like I said, Bengalis love ghost stories. And in a number of garment factories, workers have seen a bhut (ghost).
The rumour quickly spreads: the factory has been built on the site of a kabristan (cemetery) or maybe a murder took place there many years ago.
Nobody can work where there is a ghost, so management need to make arrangements to get rid of it. And all this time there is no production and workers have to be paid.
“Don’t worry about the trade union andolan (movement)”, I tell managers, “worry about the bhut andolan.”
Because if workers don’t have a voice, then their unhappiness comes out in other ways.
Seeing ghosts is one example; industrial sabotage is another; it might be that workers simply leave the factory - Bangladesh has quite high levels of labour turnover; or that they “go on the rampage” which I’ve written about before.
Social dialogue is a way of avoiding this, and is very different from suggestion boxes, which companies usually say is how they listen to workers.
Effective dialogue needs workplace training
To make social dialogue effective, we need training - not just for managers, but for the trade union representatives in factories, and where there isn’t a trade union, the elected participation committee members, drawn from shop floor workers.
We now have a new team of JETI trainers ready to go out to 25 factories in the second phase of the project. They have been nominated by brands that are members of the three ETIs.
Think of them as JETI knights, going forth to work for peace and justice in the Bangladesh garment industry.
May the force be with you.