Stirling Smith, ETI trainer and blogger, has a mission: to save companies money. His solution is unusual.
I was somewhere in Asia, chatting to representatives of a big sportswear brand – not an ETI member, I hasten to say.
They explained how they paid an NGO to talk to workers in their suppliers’ factories, and then the NGO goes to management to explain the workers concerns.
I deserve an Oscar for just nodding and saying, “very interesting” when what I wanted to shout was: “What a load of nonsense!"
Because there is a much simpler, and cheaper way of letting management know what workers think. It is called worker representation.
For a limited period, I am making this amazing method available completely free to all readers of this blog.
Smart phones not required
Under this fantastic method, workers can stand for election, and can choose anybody they like from their own section or department – in a secret ballot. The election process should have independent third-party oversight. Managers don’t get to handpick the worker representatives.
And the best thing is, there is virtually no cost. The company only has to pay the elected workers their normal pay for the time they listen to their co-workers, and then try to sort out any problems with management. Using this system of worker representation, there is no need to wait for a regular meeting with management.
No need for an App, or a “platform” or hotline - or any other technology. Just workers talking to each other and then talking to management.
Results guaranteed or your money back! What have you go to lose? Act now!
While factories should try this because it should make workers more content, it helps the business too.
In a group of 50 garment factories in Bangladesh, the system has reduced labour turnover, and reduced unauthorised absenteeism by 8%. An unexpected result was improved re-work rates, from 4.5% to 0.9%.
And that has a direct impact on the bottom line.
The knights of Bangladesh
Worker representation is yet another of those wonderful British inventions I have blogged about before, here. Historians trace it back to the Great War, when engineering workers in Glasgow wanted pay rises to keep pace with inflation and elected the first shop stewards.
And the simple principle behind workers’ representation is this: just sort it out on the spot with the supervisor, as the best problems are the problem solved before the management hear about them.
This is the system applied by the Joint ETI programme, or the JETI knights in Bangladesh. [EDITOR: even more information is here]
And the results have been very interesting.
Legislation in most countries requires factories to have a set of rules or policies. In Vietnam, for example, they are called “internal working regulations”; in Bangladesh, “service rules”.
These should set out the arrangements for things like hours, or how to apply for maternity leave, or how PPE is issued.
If you think about it, these are important documents. They are the building blocks for any HR system.
Let’s say you are a worker who wants to apply for some leave. There could be several types of leave – acquired leave, based on service; casual leave; family emergency leave. But if the supervisor does not know about them, then he or she might just take the easy route and say: “no, your application of leave is refused”. And if the worker does not know, then she or he cannot challenge the refusal – assuming they feel like standing up to their supervisor.
Result – the worker may well just take the leave and get into trouble; or walk away from the job. Many studies show that workers leave workplaces because of poor line managers. Not wages.
As soon as you have trained worker representatives, this starts to change. The rep can go to the supervisor, armed with the policies and filled-in leave application form. They can argue the case. And the supervisor must re-consider.
Result – the worker feels their concerns are addressed and is more likely to stay.
So, an important part of training worker reps is about the rules in the factories.
This can have some eye-opening results. Because the trainer must get copies of the aforesaid rules from the factory.
And you often find that the rules that should exist, don’t. In some Bangladesh factories, the Service Rules amount to a couple of sides of A4, when it should be a small booklet.
I sat through one Participation Committee (that’s where the worker representatives sit with management) and the reps explained that they had read about this thing called maternity leave, and no pregnant woman worker had ever had it.
Yes, no maternity leave in a factory that had regular social audits. Though the law provides for 16 weeks. Thanks to worker representatives, that has changed.
Worker representation works
So, this simple system works. You don’t need hotlines, or apps, or to hire an NGO.
You need to allow trade unions (the gold standard of worker representation) to function.
Where there isn’t a trade union, check out the legal system for worker representation – lots of countries have these. I have a list.
And if there is no such law, then set up something which provides for proper elections, with clear Terms of Reference, and protection for elected worker representatives. Management can’t just set up a committee and say they are listening to workers. The standard you are aiming for is the ILO Convention on Workers’ Representatives.
And start saving money.