Politics of Poverty

Strengthening the voices of workers: The benefits for business

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Seafood workers on a fishing boat in Thailand. (Photo: Art Prapha / Oxfam)

Giving workers the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining can help companies detect and solve problems before they turned into costly crises.

This post was written by Art Prapha, Senior Advisor for Private Sector Campaigns and Advocacy at Oxfam America.

Oftentimes, businesses are reluctant to create avenues for worker voice in their operations. In my work with the seafood industry, I have definitely found this to be true. Worker voice can be broadly defined as approaches that amplify the concerns, perspectives, and agency of workers regarding the businesses they’re a part of. These approaches range from internal grievance mechanisms to worker-led groups and collective bargaining organizations like trade unions and civil society advocacy organizations. The lack of such avenues in many companies raises a worthy question: Is there a business case for strengthening worker voice and representation in value chains like seafood?

How worker voice is good for business

Problems tend to become crises when they fail to reach the right decision-makers in a timely way. The present crisis of forced labor and human-trafficking allegations in the Thai seafood sector is a good example. By strengthening the voice and representation of workers, companies are effectively embedding crisis prevention mechanisms in their operations and supply chains. Problems can be detected, reported, consulted, and resolved before they become a complicated, and often costly, crises.

At the conceptual level, companies understand this well, but implementation remains a challenge. What’s needed is more than setting up a grievance mechanism that looks good on paper. It requires a shift in the business paradigm toward valuing workers as assets, rather than liabilities to be controlled. It means being willing to address the power imbalances within business operations – where workers are deprived of their ability to associate freely, be fairly represented, and collectively speak up. It also means companies must open up wider dialogue with relevant and perhaps disagreeable stakeholders who will help executives to make more inclusive and well-judged decisions.

For example, in the Thai seafood sector, global retailers and Thai suppliers came together to address forced labor allegations under the Seafood Task Force. The platform was initially dominated by international business interests with minimal participation from civil society organizations and trade unions. However, as members progressed through their various initiatives – it became clear that they could not solve problems faced by workers, without the representation from the workers themselves. NGOs, especially those who are operating nationally, have direct access to workers and communities and can provide effective and independent feedback on whether the reforms actually addressed the most pressing problems.

By strengthening worker voice and representation, management is essentially investing in staff retention, boosting workplace morale, and improving productivity while preventing crises that could harm their company’s reputation and earnings. Additionally, worker voice and feedback systems enable companies going through corporate sustainability transitions to understand what works and what needs further investment. Dialogue with workers and national NGOs – along with investment in data collection and management systems – give companies more balanced and independent monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. This is particularly essential in a national or sector context where the independence of audit and inspection processes cannot be guaranteed.

How can companies improve worker voice and representation?

  1. Create internal and suppliers’ commitments: A good starting point for companies is generating internal ‘buy-in’ between its sustainability and production teams. This helps ensure teams are committed to shared goals and are willing to adapt their strategy and work plans to achieve them. This also means that companies should introduce similar commitments into their supplier code so that the suppliers they work with throughout the value chain are also working toward the same goal. Doing these things will ensure it’s a strategy all the business’ stakeholders are on board with.
  1. Proactively remove barriers to freedom of association: Companies should clearly communicate to all workers that there will not be negative repercussions for organizing, and provide appropriate time and space for employees to have these discussions. Companies should also help to ensure that trade union representatives are welcome and suitable mechanisms are available to enable ideas and concerns to be authentically communicated from workers to management.
  1. Build trust and engage with ‘unusual suspects’: Companies should establish external relationships and build trust with relevant NGOs working directly with unions, workers’ networks, and communities. Engaging at these levels allows companies to learn what defines worker voice in different contexts, and what good practice looks like from other sectors or countries. In the case of the Thai seafood sector, the CSO Coalition, which consists of over 16 national and international organizations, has created a trusting space where these consultations can take place without compromising the mission of the businesses or civil society organizations.
  1. Don’t fix our problems, without us: Systematic challenges require adaptive interventions and this can only come when diverse actors are able to see and contribute to shared long-term goals. Building trust and realigning priorities can be achieved when there is a safe space to voice different perspectives, challenges, and ideas about potential solutions. Workers should be at the center of the processes needed to fix their problems. Facilitating this is a worthy goal for progressive businesses who are willing to understand the root causes of problems and share decision-making power with workers, who – if treated with respect – are loyal and invaluable assets for their companies.
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