Want to know how workers feel about working conditions? Ask them

Anna Triponel

January 18, 2021

UK-based retailer Marks & Spencer and non-profit Oxfam undertook a unique partnership to learn about human rights and worker well-being from workers in the company’s supply chain from food manufacturing sites in the UK and footwear factories in India. Their study—which has implications and valuable learnings for companies across sectors—pointed to key themes impacting workers in India and the UK: a lack of effective worker voice, fears about speaking out and raising concerns to managers, inadequate social supports like sick pay, a lack of transparency and fairness in promotion processes, and the prevalence of workers living in “working poverty,” i.e. not earning enough to adequately support themselves and their families. By openly sharing the issues and challenges faced, Marks & Spencer and Oxfam seek to – alongside other measures – galvanize substantive change within the wider sector.

UK-based retailer Marks & Spencer (which sells clothing, household items, food and other goods into 57 countries from over 1,000 stores globally and employ over 78,000 people) engaged with poverty and human rights non-profit Oxfam to conduct a six-month study of human rights and worker well-being in the company’s supply chain in the UK and India. Oxfam interviewed 390 workers within food manufacturing sites in the UK and footwear factories in India, asking workers about “gender equality, worker voice and in-work poverty.”

The objectives of the study were to:

  • “Capture the experience of workers producing its products;
  • Identify what M&S is doing well and where it can go further;
  • Consider how that progress can be measured; and
  • Publish the findings, so that learning can be shared and M&S can contribute to achieving a joint industry approach to tackling these widespread and global issues.”

An example of corporate transparency providing learnings for other companies

Publishing the results of this type of study is still fairly unique in the sector, meaning it provides a lot of valuable insights not only for Marks & Spencer, but also for other companies seeking to learn from Marks & Spencer’s challenges and good practices in its supply chain (in addition to those sourcing products from the same factories). The public report is also an excellent example of the type of corporate transparency that stakeholders increasingly look for from companies. By sharing the report publicly, it will push further the expectation that other companies take meaningful steps to truly understand the effectiveness of their human rights management approaches on the ground.

We’ve summarised below some of the key lessons learned from the study and recommendations that Oxfam has identified for Marks & Spencer and for other companies operating in similar contexts.

Key themes identified across workers in India and the UK

  • “A lack of effective worker voice”: In general, workers enjoyed working alongside their colleagues and shared examples of positive management practices at the factories Oxfam visited. However, at the same time there were limited formal channels for worker representation, such as worker committees and trade unions. Many workers reported that “committees and unions lacked the power and expertise needed (and in the case of worker committees also the independence) to advance workers’ interests on the key issues that mattered to them, i.e. wages, working hours, discrimination and leave provision (e.g. holiday/sick/parental leave).” As a result, there were gaps in dialogue between workers and managers.
  • “Concerns about speaking out”: Factory managers and human resources representatives told Oxfam that they were open to hearing about concerns and complaints from workers, but workers reported that they are generally not comfortable raising these concerns. They cited several reasons for this: they “did not think the problem would be resolved; believed that if they raise a problem, they must offer the solution too; and/or were afraid they would lose their job.” “The workers and suppliers’ perspectives gathered matter both for workers’ wellbeing and to M&S’s business. If a worker believes they are taking a risk to speak up – and that nothing will change if they do – they will stay silent. If a manager thinks workers are unreasonable, workers’ ideas and solutions will not be valued.”
  • “Difficulty in meeting living costs in some instances”: Oxfam found a common theme in both India and the UK that “workers reported earning the legal minimum but less than a living wage and some had incurred debts. This is turn led them to working excessive hours, accepting cash-in-hand work or taking second jobs.” Many employees reported that they need to take on second jobs to support their families. Another common issue was that workers wanted to take on more hours with Marks & Spencer’s suppliers in order to earn more income, but they “were already exhausted by their work.” This is particularly challenging for women, many of whom have unpaid family responsibilities at home that preclude them taking on more hours. Despite this, workers in both India and the UK said that they valued having more time with their families “over working longer hours to earn a bit more.”
  • “Inadequate sick pay”: Compounding the fact that many of the workers are in situations of “working poverty,” workers reported that they received no or insufficient sick pay from their employers. This is especially a problem when workers are injured on the job and are unable to take time off to recover without losing needed wages. In some cases, workers can apply for sick pay from the government, but this can be time-consuming and may not be sufficient to cover lost time either.
  • “The need for more transparent or fairer job progression processes”: According to Oxfam, “[d]eveloping skills and experience is a key way for workers to access higher-paid work or promotion.” At all of the sites, workers reported having opportunities and support to develop new skills, but many workers and some managers felt that promotion criteria and processes were not transparent. For example, workers “cited nepotism, gender, unpaid care responsibilities, contract status, migrant status, race, trade union membership or active participation in workers’ committees as factors affecting promotion prospects.” In the UK in particular, a major barrier was that workers were not fluent in English and relied on their peers to serve as informal interpreters.

Three underlying workplace management issues were identified:

Recommendations for all retailers

Oxfam calls on all retailers to:

  • “Strengthen corporate governance for human rights impacted by the business and supply chain operations, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and examples of best practice guidance.”
  • “Transition away from reliance on ethical audits towards a greater emphasis on human rights due diligence and management planning – to integrate identifying, redressing and mitigating harm into everyday operations – as well as effective worker–management dialogue based on a range of channels that work for women and men.”
  • “Adjust the performance management process and procurement team incentives; offer support, incentives and rewards to suppliers that demonstrate better workforce management standards.”
  • “Collect and publish disaggregated data on women, men, contract type, migrant status and ideally all protected characteristics within the supply chain workforce. Use the data to improve outcomes for vulnerable workers.”
  • “Commit to sourcing a larger percentage of products from women-owned businesses, those applying feminist principles and producers with more equitable business models.”
  • “Advocate for action by governments and investors to address systemic issues that affect the realization of workers’ rights – such as minimum wage levels, discrimination, freedom of association and collective bargaining – together with outlining clear expectations and rewards for companies that prioritize investment in social sustainability standards and tackle laggards.”

Read the full study here: Penny Fowler, Beck Wallace and Rachel Wilshaw, Oxfam, Working in Marks & Spencer’s Food and Footwear Supply Chains (January 2021)

“Setting standards and investing in our own operations – however good – can only ever be a baseline. To effect real change, particularly in an age of globalized, increasingly fast and interdependent supply chains, we have to work with the wider industry and international bodies. … If we want to continue to deliver our unique customer promise of quality, value, innovation, service and trust, there is no room for complacency. If we are serious about ensuring that everyone who works with, as well as for, M&S is treated with decency and respect, then we must hold a mirror up and make sure the reflection is true. ... The experience of every individual matters and collectively they represent the challenges we face as an industry. While some of it makes for uncomfortable reading, progress will only be made by openly sharing the issues and challenges we are facing rather than taking cold comfort from the things that are working well. We have already made changes in light of the report’s findings … and hope that, through sharing the report and our response openly, it can help to support meaningful change across the industry.”                        

Foreword by Paul Willgoss, Director Food Technology, M&S Food; Fiona Sadler, Global Head of Responsible Sourcing, Clothing and Home; and Nidhi Dua, Head of India Region, M&S Clothing and Home. Working in Marks & Spencer’s Food and Footwear Supply Chains (January 2021)

“There were … some findings that surprised us, such as the level of poverty among skilled leather workers in India, despite them being paid above the minimum wage, and the range of reported issues in UK food sites that were not raised with management or via audits. … A key conclusion was the disconnect between the information that M&S managers typically receive about conditions in workplaces, based largely on third-party ethical audits, and what workers report as their experience. This raises important questions for M&S and other companies about the reliability of auditors’ findings on suppliers, and the need for stronger worker representation and potentially regulation.”                      

Penny Fowler, Beck Wallace and Rachel Wilshaw, Oxfam, Working in Marks & Spencer’s Food and Footwear Supply Chains (January 2021)

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