Listening to workers key to dealing with pandemic challenges


TALKING BACK TO THE BOSS HELPS EVERYBODY. Jim Stanford and Daniel Poon have the arguments to prove it.

They are authors of Speaking Up, Being Heard, Making Change: The Theory and Practice of Worker Voice in Canada Today a brand new study from from the Centre for Future Work’s PowerShare project.

Giving workers “voice” is key they say—when workers are union members, and even when they are not.

Real-life examples

Once workers feel free to speak up, and once they actually get listened to, things just work better. And we need things to work as well as possible if we are to meet all our pandemic challenges.

The report identifies 10 challenges facing Canadian workplaces today, many of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. These include the adaptation of new technology, racial equity, workplace health and safety, the increase in gig work and the need to improve income security programs such as Employment Insurance.

A refreshing element in the report is how the authors use dozens of real-life examples to prove their points. They do this with Voice in Action elements, set apart in 16 separate text boxes, every two or three pages in the main body of the report. Each box contains a number of of real-life examples of workers speaking and acting to fight for, and win, fair treatment for themselves and co-workers.

Just like a union

Worker voice is often tokenized, or used as a buzzword, says Stanford, but workers need more than the proverbial suggestion box; they need to have actual power, and their employers need to be required to listen and act—even when workers are not in a union.

The report sets out recommendations to bolster union representation and access, as well as provide union-like protections and powers to non-unionized workers. Many of the recommendations are based on existing structures in Canada.

Stanford says all workers should have access to the protections afforded by a union, whether they are unionized or not.

Gregor Murray, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Globalization and the Work World, says that compulsory worker voice promotes legitimacy and innovation, and is associated with higher productivity.

Unions aren’t a fix-all, says Murray, which is why it’s important to have protections for workers set out in legislation. He also believes a strong worker voice will help Canada to be nimble and creative in its recovery from COVID-19.

Existing possibilities

In Canada, compulsory voice is rare—but not unheard of. For example, workplaces above a certain size are required to have joint health and safety committees, a structure that could be replicated to address other issues, including adaptation of technology or racial equity.

Stanford also recommends union-based voice mechanisms much like the decree system in Quebec, which creates a collective agreement for a sector instead of a single workplace. This is good for workplaces that are difficult to unionize, he says.

“We live in a world where people fear for their jobs all the time,” he says, and that insecurity has a “chilling effect on workers’ voice.”

Enforcement gap

Stanford said Canada’s “enforcement gap” also needs to be addressed to ensure that minimum employment standards are met in non-unionized workplaces. This could involve informing workers about their rights and giving advocacy organizations more power to speak on behalf of workers who fear retribution, he said.

One such organization, the Workers Action Centre, has been advocating during the pandemic for benefits such as paid sick leave for front-line workers.

Deena Ladd, the centre’s executive director, said if given the power, organizations such as hers could act as third-party advocates for employees who want to make anonymous complaints about workplace rights.

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