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OPINION: What Oxfam learned by speaking to M&S factory workers

by Rachel Wilshaw | Oxfam GB
Friday, 29 January 2021 11:30 GMT

People are seen outside a Marks and Spencer (M&S) store, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Altrincham, Britain August 27, 2020. REUTERS/Molly Darlington

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Rare research shows need for better worker representation in supply chains

By Rachel Wilshaw, Workers' Rights Senior Manager, Oxfam GB

It is rare for a major brand to commission a campaigning charity like Oxfam to undertake sensitive research relating to its business. It’s even rarer for the organisation to be able to publish an independent report. Credit to Marks and Spencer (M&S) for its willingness and transparency.

The research we conducted into human rights and working conditions and published earlier this month, is based on interviews with nearly 400 workers at food manufacturing sites in the UK and leather footwear factories in India supplying M&S and other well-known retailers.

What workers told us makes uncomfortable but essential reading for any company with a large low-paid workforce working under commercial pressure. Concerns raised include in-work poverty, long-term damage to health, inadequate sick pay, discrimination, and poor worker representation – issues common across the global food and fashion industries.

As one of the interview team visiting UK sites, an abiding memory for me is how incredibly hard people work to bring us affordable, quality food, whilst earning the minimum wage or just above and with income security a precious commodity.

In India, my colleagues heard of extremely low wages and debt. Women faced huge barriers to progression. Workers at three sites said that only company-managed ‘trade unions were allowed; and some trade unionists reported working anonymously to avoid retaliation. No examples of good practice were cited.

We did hear examples of good practice in UK factories but even here, the first country in the world to ratify ILO convention 98 on the right to organise and collective bargaining, workers told us that they did not have the opportunity to negotiate wages and working conditions. Production pressure, hostility to trade unions and the prevalence of precarious jobs were all cited as barriers.

One of the key findings from the report was that many of the problems workers described to us don't normally come to light because of a lack of trust in reporting channels. In the absence of such trust, it doesn’t matter how many auditors visit, or how many managers’ doors are ‘always open’, serious issues can and will go under the radar.

For M&S this was a key takeaway. They acknowledged that that whilst audits remain a key tool for businesses, nothing beats hearing directly from workers. In their response to Oxfam’s report they committed to expand the use of a ‘worker voice’ app to hear directly from workers in 500 food sites by 2022, as well as establish a new board committee that will review such material and provide a steer to the business.

Worker apps such as these have the potential to supply useful information to brands and retailers, reducing their over-reliance on audits. By all means let’s have more worker-centred reporting mechanisms. But the range of problematic issues reported by workers to Oxfam suggest that adding apps to audits is unlikely to do enough to diagnose, far less remedy, these issues. We need to step back and look at the bigger picture.

A good quality job is founded on decent wages and employment terms (taking into account women’s greater unpaid care roles). It should also involve open dialogue between workers and management on the things that matter most to workers, such as wages, working patterns and leave. That dialogue needs to be collective - to counter the imbalance of power between manager and worker - and allow for safe spaces for women - to counter the imbalance of power between male and female workers.  And alongside dialogue, there is a need for grievance mechanisms that are trusted and demonstrably able to resolve grievances. Worker representation is much more likely to achieve these than one-way ‘worker voice’ programmes.

The more these issues and power dynamics are recognised by senior executives, investors and regulators, and a positive stance taken with regard to worker representation, the sooner reporting channels of the future can be relied on, prevent exploitation and ensure workers’ rights are protected.

The fact that M&S opened up its supply chain to Oxfam’s scrutiny shows it is willing to engage on difficult issues and open to improve. We need more companies to do the same. Oxfam will continue to challenge and engage M&S and its peers on effective ways to address in-work poverty, gender equality and other issues common across global food and fashion industries. However, widespread change requires a global cross-industry effort with more effective government regulation as well as better worker representation.

In response to the opinion piece, M&S Head of Sustainable Business Carmel McQuaid said:

“Oxfam’s findings clearly reveal that while existing audit practices will remain a cornerstone of the ethical assurance process, nothing beats hearing directly from workers. We’ve now taken action by committing to scaling our worker voice pilot programmes, including our leading app-based worker survey with employee engagement consultancy nGaje, which will now reach over 500 food sites in the UK by 2022. Setting standards in our own supply chains, however rigorous, can only set a baseline and we have to work with others across the industry. As a result, we are committed to sharing the framework of our worker voice programme and the lessons we have learned with the wider industry We believe that’s the only way we will deliver meaningful change at scale for the people who work across our industry’s supply chains.”