Proactive corporate policy change
Proactive corporate policy change by a company, for example, that will actually bring about better conditions for factory workers in the region – why is this not happening more deliberately and at any kind of scale? We’ve had two global pieces of legalese quickly emerge following the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, yet conditions, welfare, and prejudice around the role of factory workers remains the same. Low wages, long hours, and low status in the workplace characterise how workers are perceived by factory owners, perpetuated by the global buyers who continue to drive inequality up and down supply chains by demanding cheaper manufacturing costs, and who refuse to commit to long-term formal contracts with factories.
More active lobbying by NGOs
Simultaneously, let’s see much more active lobbying by NGOs with others in the sector to call for fairer wages, decent hours, and benefits for the same factory workers. We need more joined-up campaigning around the additional pressures young female workers are under – women who face societal and workplace discrimination around the tasks and responsibilities they can carry out, and who are exposed to vulnerabilities, as they are all too often forced to leave their homes and travel to urban centres to earn income for their children and extended family.
Taking interventions to scale
When we know explicitly what the underlying dynamics are, in the case of factory workers, then why are we not yet taking interventions to scale, or promoting policy which might actually affect change for the hundreds of thousands of workers battling with these dynamics around Asia?
Conferencing can offer a space to share ideas, although it would be good, too, if we all started holding ourselves to account on following through on ideas and opportunities.
There has been much talk about how scale can come in different guises – policy change, replicable programmes across different contexts, new funding investments, industry-level commitments to responsible practices, use of technology, and so on. About how collaborating with others can (when done well, and resourced properly) help. About how scale can be upwards as well as outwards, and that it can also be defined in terms of deepening an organisation’s understanding of an issue, or a way of working.
Achieving scale by valuing staff
But the neatest nugget on scale – in spite of all these other aspects – that I took away from a Sharing Values Asia event in Singapore, was from a few minutes’ honest chat with a company representative who told me that the most pressing issue they were facing was “retaining staff due to a lack of career development”.
The company in question, it was explained to me, can pontificate all day long about scale and impact and partnerships with others, but their reality is that they are failing to adequately launch and carry out any new activities which reflect their public statements on sustainability issues, because they are too preoccupied recruiting new employees. This involves time and money, but also investment in HR systems and change management consultants to advise them on their own employee well-being and development policies.
As someone I worked with once remarked on the subject of staff surveying and motivations in the workplace – “just pay people properly and give them recognition for their work, and you are halfway to securing their commitment to the organisation”.
A lesson for all – both private sector and NGOs
By all accounts this is a ‘cross sector’ issue, and whilst much of my work is seeking to improve corporate sector responsibilities, the NGO industry must also sit up and listen to the facts. A recent Harvard Business Review article shines a useful light on similar issues that seem to continue to flourish across NGOs – a sector traditionally founded (and mission-based) around people-orientated values and principles.
In some ways then, what I did learn from that particular day on the circuit, on the issue of scale, is that looking within an organisation at your ‘human capital’ (another popular phrase in the rubric) and placing genuine value on the good old-fashioned idea that your organisation is ‘only as good as the people working in it’ might perhaps be the one authentic place for you to start.
And it’s a lesson that applies as much to factory workers as it does to company executives and NGO specialists.
Read more about CARE’s report Adding value to value chains: How to unlock the poverty-fighting potential of value chains