Daily Archives: July 22, 2007

JLP Responsible Sourcing Part VI: Freedom of Association and Employee Representation

In our last post, we focussed on discipline, and how you prevent discipline-related issues,

corresponding to section E of the report.

In today’s post, we cover section F of The John Lewis Partnership‘s Responsible Sourcing Supplier Workbook which covers freedom of association and employee representation.

In addition to a worker’s right to socialize with whomever they choose, freedom of association refers to a worker’s right to form and join a workers’ association, council, group, committee, and / or union of their choosing. A worker must have the right to belong to a group that provides them with an effective process to raise their concerns with management and which works to ensure continual good communication between workers and management.

Freedom of association and employee representation is important because it contributes to an employee’s sense of well being. It’s a proven fact that content employees who enjoy going to work everyday are much more productive than those who hate their jobs and fear going to work because they are degraded or abused. Consider the statistic in our last post that found that workplace bullying contributes to an estimated loss of 18 million working days every year in the UK alone. Imagine the global productivity loss from poor disciplinary management alone!

Associations, trade unions, and committees, when formed under good intentions and properly led, can help significantly by:

  • improving two-way communication between employees and managers
  • negotiating improvements to working conditions and compensation
  • acting as a positive force for change

It is true that there are often real and perceived barriers to freedom of association and employee representation, which include:

  • many companies find the concept of a union or worker’s group threatening
  • workers are often scared of putting themselves forward for election
  • in some countries, the formation of a union is illegal
  • sometimes the worker who is elected does not have the skills or training to effectively run the organization

But it is also true that these barriers can be easily overcome with education and a positive approach. The report offers some suggestions:

  • suggestion boxes as a mechanism for anonymous reporting of issues
  • committees to act as an interface between employees and management
  • informal committees to handle specific issues

The report also offers a checklist that you can follow to make sure that your employees have sufficient freedom of association and employee representation:

  • workers are able to collectively bargain regarding key aspects of employment
  • workers have a union, association, or committee they can use for reporting issues and collectively bargaining
  • management meets regularly with the union, association, or committee that handles employee representation
  • management actively responds to concerns and communicates outcomes
  • members or representatives of unions, associations, or committee are not treated differently in any way
  • employee representatives of such organizations can carry out their duties within working hours without penalty

Anyone who knows me well might wonder why I do not have a problem with this section of the JLP responsible sourcing workbook since they will believe I am adamantly against unions, as I have spoken quite negatively about them many times in the past. However, that view is specific to the formation of unions in IT and other knowledge industries in developed countries where adequate government protection exists to protect basic employee rights and freedoms. With regards to agricultural, manufacturing, and other hard-labor based industries in developing countries where there are little or no laws to protect the rights and freedoms of an employee, my stance is different. In that context, I have no problems with unions.

Furthermore, I believe unions could have a positive impact on many developing economies, just as they did in our own during the industrial revolution which took place a little more than a hundred years ago. Back then, we didn’t have all of the laws we do today that protect basic worker rights and freedoms. Furthermore, in a labor-based industry, the productivity is not going to vary much between your worst employee and best employee, and, thus, the notion of an open-market, while quite beneficial to a knowledge-based job where your top employee is order of magnitudes more productive than your average employee, does not have the same effect. And even if it had a slight impact on an organization’s ability to attract the best and brightest, considering the atrocious working conditions in some countries, this would be more than compensated by the improved working conditions that would result.

In our next post, we’ll tackle the sixth major issue addressed by the workbook, that of working hours. (You can access all of the posts in the series (to-date) by selecting the JLP category at any time.)