Academic research suggests that high quality, satisfying jobs are better for business, in terms of optimising productivity, quality and profits. This convenient truth, which many thought was self-evident, is a key driver in the ‘ethical trading’ efforts of retailers and brands seeking to de-risk their supply chains. It would be great if it was all as simple as that. However, it also turns out that workers without a choice, in other words, those who suffer the ultimate abuse of labour rights, that is those who are prevented from leaving their jobs, can also be highly productive. (Source: Megan Miller: Should I stay or should I go? Analysing the decision of the firm to prevent worker remigration 2014 – Better Work Programme, forthcoming). It seems to be that denying workers choice and compelling them to work can be a useful profit maximisation strategy. Now that is an inconvenient truth.
It seems to work like this. If workers are dehumanised and treated badly, but can exercise the choice to leave and try their luck elsewhere, then they will work less productively and will jump ship at the first opportunity. So being less bad as an employer, and allowing free movement, doesn’t deliver more profits.
This non-linear relationship between job quality and productivity should give us pause when we think about how to move employers from the all too common restrictive techniques of withholding workers’ identity cards or passports or holding deposits to the sunlit upland of high quality, highly productive jobs. It would appear that there may be no business case for a small shift away from restricting workers’ freedom of movement only, whilst continuing management practices which tend to dehumanise and disrespect workers. This may actually reduce productivity. Certainly in Impactt’s work, we note a marked reluctance amongst employers to abandon coercive management techniques. Managers are afraid that they will lose control of the workforce, and, since they have no experience of management using positive techniques of empowerment, incentives and progression, they have nothing with which to replace the fines and deposits. The compliance efforts of retailers and brands have tended to focus on rooting out and forbidding bad practice, rather than providing viable alternatives, resulting in low productivity and high levels of worker turnover.
The answer has to be a complete re-think of these efforts, away from bans and prohibitions and towards programmes which promote a wholesale change of mindset, and a set of techniques which focus on getting the best out of the workforce, focusing on providing attractive jobs, with adequate pay, where workers are respected for their input and have the prospect of progression. This means a big change, but it is possible, as our Benefits for Business and Workers (BBW) Programme in Bangladesh has demonstrated. BBW trains factory managers, supervisors and welfare officers in communication skills, productivity and quality and HR management. It prompts managers to rehumanise workers, and to develop incentives and processes which deliver job satisfaction and higher productivity. Across 35 garment factories, these techniques have been employed to unlock a reduction in worker attrition of 52%, an increase in pay per hour of 12% and an 18% increase in productivity.
So, yes, better quality jobs are better for business – but workers need to feel real benefits in terms of money, respect and promotion prospects in order to unlock enhanced productivity. Being less bad isn’t good enough. Merely banning egregious abuses won’t bring home the bacon.
Rosey Hurst, Founder and Director of Impactt Limited