Effective worker voice

Anna Triponel

March 15, 2024
Our key takeaway: Ensuring effective worker voice is harder to achieve, but more important than ever, in the current climate, which has seen a shift towards informal and precarious work, outsourced global supply chains, authoritarian regimes and a lack of labour laws in certain sectors like agriculture and domestic work. But what does worker voice even mean? The U.S. Department of Labor and the Pennsylvania State University Center for Global Workers’ Rights finds that worker voice is comprised of 6 key components: 1) Election of representatives; 2) Representation of members; 3) Inclusion of member diversity in leadership, on committees, and throughout all levels of the organisation; 4) Protection of workers from harassment, threats and violence when they attempt to exercise their freedom of association and collective bargaining rights; 5) Enabling organisations, through training and capacity building of members, to carry out their functions; and 6) Empowering workers and their organisations to use their leverage to secure outcomes through, for instance, striking and bargaining. They find that traditional business-as-usual corporate social responsibility and social auditing programmes are insufficient at enabling effective worker voice. And that worker-driven social responsibility mechanisms such as Enforceable Brand Agreements in the garment sector, the Fair Food Program in the U.S. agricultural sector, and the ACT Agreement between IndustriALL Global Union and 19 global brands and retailers to secure living wages for workers, are examples of good practice in this area.

The U.S. Department of Labor and the Pennsylvania State University Center for Global Workers’ Rights published Worker Voice: What it is, what it is not, and why it matters (March 2024):

  • What does worker voice mean? The report defines effective worker voice as composed of six interacting components: 1) “Election of representatives”; 2) “Representation of members”; 3) “Inclusion of member diversity in leadership, on committees, and throughout organizations and worker voice mechanisms”; 4) “Protection of workers from acts of anti-union discrimination, harassment, threats and violence”; 5) “Enabling organizations to carry out their functions by ensuring members have the time, space, information, and training they need; and 6) “Empowering workers and their organization to use leverage for their goals through concerted activities” which includes “direct activities of trade unions (bargaining, strikes, etc.) and leveraging state and private mechanisms that have sanction power.” By this definition, effective worker voice is not present in the following mechanisms: a) corporate social responsibility programmes (CSR), employer or brand-driven worker engagement programmes because workers are “under the domination of employers or employers’ organizations”; b) management-appointed or co-opted worker representatives; c) physical suggestion boxes, which are typically subject to surveillance, or digital surveys; and d) organisations where more privileged workers are in leadership positions.
  • Examples of effective worker voice mechanisms: The report highlights several case studies of effective worker voice mechanisms in various sectors and countries. In the garment industry in South Asia, worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) mechanisms, such as Enforceable Brand Agreements (EBAs), are seen as much more effective at protecting workers’ rights than CSR programmes, social auditing programmes, and national labour relations regimes following the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. The report draws on the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety; the Pakistan Accord on Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry; the Fruit of the Loom Washington Agreement in Honduras; the Lesotho Agreement; and the India Dindigul Agreement to demonstrate that “EBAs have had some success addressing labor violations, minimizing power imbalances, maximizing workers’ collective voice, and improving workers’ lives.” In the agricultural industry in the U.S., workers have expressed their voice through the United Farm Workers (UFW), the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ). Workers have carried out several measures, including “strikes, boycotts, lawsuits, political advocacy, union collective bargaining, enforceable cross supply chain agreements, co-enforcement, and a workers’ cooperative.” In Myanmar, ACT (an agreement between the IndustriALL Global Union and 19 global brands and retailers in the garment, textile, and footwear industries to achieve living wages for workers) established the fast-track Dispute Resolution Mechanism and the 2021 June Framework on Workers Safety and Terminations, which addressed allegations in relation to respect of workers’ rights following the Military coup in 2021.
  • Recommendations: The report outlines recommendations for policymakers and practitioners. At the national policy level, ensuring effective worker voice entails “legal protections of worker voice for all workers … and coordinated worker voice structures at all levels of firms, sectors, national and international policymaking.” At the international policy level, effective worker voice means “international, multiparty collective bargaining across supply chains and linking labor, trade, and investment rights in international agreements.” In relation to workers’ organisations, the “inclusiveness of all workers and worker-led collaborations with advocates on education and research” can go some way to ensuring effective worker voice.

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