There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? … I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?
- Robert Kennedy
Thus far I have written frequently about companies failing in their responsibilities to their workforce in a very direct sense: not paying them enough to get by, or requiring excessive work hours, or failing to provide a safe workplace.
These are the easy problems to spot because their effect is so immediate. Videos, photographs and human stories will find their way out from behind factory gates.
However it is only part of the picture. To use an analogy from physics, it is like the ‘visible matter’ of the universe. There is an even larger mass of ‘dark matter’ – practices that are less than ideal but, because the ideal has never been seen, they are not perceived as a problem in need of a remedy.
One of these is structures that hinder employees themselves from acting in the best interest of the company.
Occupational Health and Safety Committees are an excellent example of employee empowerment for the good of a company. Where these function effectively, employees can raise safety concerns in their workplace without fear of reprisal. Also their concerns cannot be brushed under the carpet but are formalised and must be addressed. Yes in the short term there is a cost in some lost work hours and in purchasing equipment, however the long term benefits are there.
If a workplace does not have a Committee and a preventable accident occurs, chances are that people will see it as just one of those things that happen. Who would think to blame it on the absence of a Committee who could have identified and reduced the risk.
Whistleblowing is an even more dramatic example. Where whistleblower protections exist, companies can be saved from themselves and catastrophic problems averted. Where they don’t, disaster will unfold. People will shrug and say no one person could have prevented it, which may be true but perhaps if lines of communication were kept open it would not be.
This is a different way of perceiving workers rights. It is not a matter of being pushed and then pushing back. Rather it is a case of taking ownership of a situation and seeking to improve it, whether one is an employee, manager or even a shareholder.