Dialogue between companies, workers and their representatives and governments is crucial for establishing rules that give workers a stronger voice in improving pay and conditions while reducing the risk of human rights abuse. In this week's fourth reflection on ethical trade issues, we discuss why this is often disputed?
It is a scandal. Worldwide, more than 700 million workers do not earn enough to lift themselves and their families out of poverty, while around 1.4 billion workers, most of them women, are in insecure jobs or in the informal sector. Meanwhile, every year, there are over 2.7 million work-related deaths.
In too many places, workers are denied basic human rights, and migrant workers continue to be exploited.
In the drive to bring ever more products to market, people are often seen merely as a commodity, with wages pushed down to cut costs. A lack of formal worker representation fuels and exacerbates the problem. If workers do not have access to universal workplace rights and protections within supplier companies, nothing changes.
Unionisation in a global world
“There is a lack of political will and corporate ambition, with workers’ rights viewed as barriers to trade and profitability. There is also a misconception about workers’ rights and what that means,” says Beverley Hall, ETI’s Senior Advisor on Industrial Relations.
For many, the concept of workers organising themselves and contributing to the sustainability of the business in a formal, mature and structured way, is viewed as a risk.
Pointing to the UK’s electricity sector, which has long been unionized and has usually cordial union management relationships, she adds that positive dialogue between workers and managers is rarely talked about. “How often do you hear about the lights going out in the UK because of union action?”
Yet while it is a basic human right to associate, as well as one of the fundamental ILO conventions, giving people a stronger voice in the workplace is under attack globally.
According to the Global Rights Index 2018, last year, the governments of 44 countries were found to have locked up trade unionists. This year, that figure jumped to 59 countries, a 34% rise, with Bangladesh, Cambodia and Turkey listed among the ‘World’s Ten Worst Countries for Workers’.
Sound industrial relations can create positive change
For ETI, social dialogue in the workplace is about establishing formal or informal processes that enable workers and employers to negotiate or consult collectively on issues concerning their rights and responsibilities and to resolve conflicts peacefully and effectively.
A growing number of examples show that effective social dialogue between workers on the ‘shop floor’ and managers can contribute to decent work, quality jobs, greater equality and inclusive growth – all of which benefit workers and companies alike.
And, as highlighted by a recent ILO and OECD report, enabling workers to organise themselves can boost job security, clarify the employment relationship and help with the transition from informal to formal employment.
Benefits to the business
Social dialogue - freedom of association and collective bargaining - can also deliver benefits to business through improved productivity and reduced staff turnover, which helps them to save on recruitment fees.
With around half the world’s working population currently outside the coverage of the two key international labour instruments protecting their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, tripartite dialogue between companies, governments and trade unions is more important than ever in bringing about lasting change.
As OECD Secretary-General, Angel Gurría says: “At a time marked by increasing job insecurity, wage stagnation and new challenges from the digital revolution, constructive labour relations are more important than ever.”
As part of ETI’s 20th anniversary conference on responsible supply chains, being run on 31 October and 1 November in conjunction with business risks solution provider Elevate, there will be:
- a session on enabling workers representation. Trade unions are gatekeepers to workers’ rights and to protection. Alison Tate of International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Wilbert Flinterman of Fairtrade International, Kadir Uysal, ETI’s Regional Manager in Turkey and Stephen Russel of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) will offer solutions that encourage in depth dialogue and better industrial relations. They will show that in doing this, unions allow workers’ voices to be heard, building connections that not only bring about decent work but also reduce inequality and benefit the business.
- a session on remedy for workers. Led by Dr Jennifer Zerk of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), Carlos Lopez of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), John Evans, of the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Karamat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research (PILER), delegates will analyse the components of an effective grievance mechanism and how companies can develop a corporate remedy strategy that ensures workers negatively impacted by business operations or relationships can access remedy and be provided with redress. In doing this, the session will help attendees agree what a good operational grievance mechanism looks like.