Migrant Workers In Mauritius
How to lift morale and to develop a spirit of community and engagement among several thousand migrant garment workers, separated from their homes and families sometimes for years at a time? This was the problem that faced UK high-street brands Next and Arcadia in their dealings with a major Mauritius-based supplier last year. Problems with the practice of recruitment via agents based in Bangladesh also raised alarm in relation to brand responsibilities under the UK’s pioneering legislation on Modern Slavery.
After worker discontent surfaced due to a breakdown in internal communication at the manufacturer, the brands looked for a means of changing relationships at the supplier’s factories to create an ongoing workplace dialogue to better understand the needs and concerns of its workforce. This posed both a linguistic and cultural challenge, given that the company employs over 4,000 mostly female migrant workers from Bangladesh on three-year renewable contracts, some 2,000 mostly male workers from India, increasing numbers of incomers from Madagascar and a local workforce of over 4,000 Creole-speakers.
Just Solutions was called in to work with the Vectra consulting group to develop a higher awareness of the core issues with top management of the company and to initiate a new management culture that could induce a mind-set change among mid-level managers and supervisors.
Following this essential introductory work, Just Solutions was invited by the company to develop a new approach to workplace dialogue across its Mauritian operations. Because of the diversity of languages and the sheer numbers of workers involved, it was not practical to use traditional face-to-face worker training to reach out to the workforce as a whole. Instead, a custom-made training movie was shot in Bengali, with Hindi and Creole dubbing, and showings were held to large groups of workers with feedback Q&A session in working time. Just Solutions also deployed the multi-language ‘QuizRR’ e-learning system – a series of short movies with open choice ‘quizzes’ to follow, that groups of workers can access in short training sessions during working hours. Aggregated results can show the level of progress being made by each batch of learners.
The first result from this company-wide restructuring of internal dialogue was to hold free and independent elections by the workers of their own representatives who are elected by specific workplace ‘constituencies’ to whom they are accountable. This meant that each group of 80-100 workers chose one of their number to be trained as a point of referral for any issue that they felt needed attention in the social or working life of the factory. As a large majority of the workers at the factory are migrants, living in dormitories and far from their families, issues that might arise have wider boundaries than in the regular workplace.
The Just Solutions trainers worked with over 300 elected workplace representatives across five factories. Each rep participated in a week-long dynamic training exercise in their own language group (there are four official main language groups at this company). The worker reps were trained to investigate issues and to raise them in a process of ‘fearless escalation’ through streamlined company communications structures. The shared intention of workers and managers is to cooperate in finding the most satisfactory resolution to problems or the swiftest way to incorporate agreed improvements.
Worker reps meet together once a month in each factory and have chosen spokesperson to represent the interests of the whole group to a joint meeting with management every two months for issues that are not so easily resolved in day-to-day dialogue and may require budgetary or policy decisions.
In addition to this ‘basic training’, reps have also received training as workplace health and safety monitors with some serving on joint worker/management health and safety committees in each factory. All women representatives received further training as a result of the link between Just Solutions Network and the Working Women Worldwide organisation to raise the profile and confidence of women worker representatives. Factory-level women’s joint worker/management discussions have been convened to promote this aim and to deal with any matters that arise from the implementation of this policy objective.
Dealing with Individual and Workplace Stress
The life of a migrant worker working and living in shared dormitory accommodation for several years, away from home and family, can cause cumulative stress that impacts not only the health and well-being of the individual, but also the stability of the community as a whole. To help with this problem, and alongside changes in the workplace outlined above to de-stress the working environment, a specially designed programme of personal stress management and resilience-building has been delivered to managers, supervisors, worker reps and to front-line workers across the company. A morning breathing and focusing exercise now starts the working day to bring everyone into a calm and centred state before considering the day’s tasks. At this time also workers may speak with their rep about anything that they feel needs attention to improve the work environment. This resilience training has previously been deployed by Just Solutions via its ‘IntoAlignment’ sister organisation in several countries with positive results. Its use at the Mauritian factories was the subject of close research that measured the impact of the technique on shopfloor workers, on managers and on company performance over the course of a twelve month period.
A review and survey was undertaken in February 2018 across the three core factories of the group, based on a ten per cent random sample of managers, supervisors, worker reps and front-line workers. The purpose of the review was two-fold:
- to discover whether the dialogue and engagement structures that had been installed and the successive trainings undertaken since December 2015 had led to any observable change in the daily life of the factories and in the attitudes of its workers, supervisors and managers;
- to run a second series of sample ‘stress tests’ in the three core factories to compare with results that had been obtained prior to the delivery of the stress management and resilience-building programme and the daily resilience-building exercises practised in the factories.
Without exception, and across all language groups, the review team received an emphatically positive response to the revised and strengthened representational structures.
Interestingly, some of the most positive feedback came from supervisors who described the worker representatives as ‘very useful’ in identifying workplace problems early and bringing to their attention issues that needed fixing. This was a contrast to some of the concerns that had been expressed by some supervisors prior to the training and structural changes. Those groups had expressed the fear that worker reps might stir up dissention rather than reduce it and might take away some authority from the supervisors, thereby making their job harder. The review team pressed supervisors specifically on these points, but all groups were adamant that the worker reps, after training, were more valuable assets in performing their work.
Examples given included motivating other workers to consider their place in a team and improving overall attitudes. Because they had been trained and took their role seriously, the worker reps were seen by the supervisors as positive in their ‘early warning’ role, even if that meant sometimes speaking to the supervisor about perceptions of her own interactions with the line members.
The supervisors also felt that it was possible for the worker representatives to speak more easily to workers when there were difficulties to sort out. They were also helpful in taking pressure off the supervisor in dealing with small issues. Small problems were sorted out very swiftly and did not lead to bigger problems by being unheard or ignored through lack of time or from the focus of attention being on production only. The representation system also allowed easier discussion on broader workplace problems and for solutions to be communicated back to front-line workers by their representatives.
During off-duty hours also supervisors felt the relief of pressure. Previously it had been the case that all their spare time had been taken up handling problems in the dormitories – even disturbing them while they slept.
While previously the former worker representatives were not greatly respected because they had no idea what to do and no access to management, after training they understood much better what their role is and are able to present a sensible case for solution. This meant for the supervisors that they could concentrate more thoroughly on production issues where they felt their main purpose lay.
The worker representatives themselves reported that they had experienced some confusion (both for themselves and for their supervisors) about their role when first elected, but that this was clarified by the training that they received. They now felt more comfortable to express themselves to their supervisor or in the presence of managers without feeling pressure.
This viewpoint was reinforced by discussions with the factory managers, all of whom confirmed that they felt the system was a positive improvement to help local problem-solving. They were confident that the worker representatives were now better able to understand and to tackle problems that they might encounter.
An example was given of the need to erect a fly screen in the canteen area to prevent pigeons causing a nuisance when food was distributed. This was planned but not immediately possible because other changes were due to be made that might clash. Normally this could cause dissatisfaction but in discussion it was explained why the screen could not be fitted instantly and the worker reps were able to pass this information on to their colleagues who accepted the need to wait for this change a little longer.
Managers also found the health and safety training of worker representatives helpful on a daily basis. As one manager explained: “What I don’t see, they can see and tell me about it.”
The types of problem raised to the worker reps by their colleagues ranged very widely – from small problems of equipment in the dormitories not working or sickness reporting through to issues on the line such as inability to meet new targets. In the latter case, it was reported, supervisors had been prepared to rearrange the post of the worker in the work flow to facilitate a solution. This constructive collaboration appeared to arise naturally as a function of the mutual confidence between the representative and the supervisor. In the words of one worker representative “We are the lubrication in the factory’s wheels.”
The regular monthly meetings – between the worker reps and with supervisors and/or management – were now considered a fixed feature of workplace relations. Core issues that had been covered in successive meetings were health and safety questions, issues arising in the dormitories and actual suggestions for improvement in factory working. Issues and decisions are recorded for consultation and for analysis.
All the workers interviewed could identify who were their elected representative and reported feeling confident about approaching them with any issue that might need their help. Examples given by the workers of issues that might be raised in this way included production-related questions (usually targets or difficulties in technique on a new garment) and inter-personal disputes in the hostels. Food issues were a frequent item of discussion also and workers confirmed that management had responded quickly to some suggestions on diet.
The review team was concerned to ensure that the feedback loop was working correctly, with worker reps reporting back to their ‘constituents’ about the results of their discussions. It was generally agreed that this mechanism was working successfully and one Mauritian worker gave the example how her representative had made a special effort to check that she was happy with the solution to her problem.
Stress Effects Reduced
Results from the training that had been given in stress management and resilience-building techniques to all categories of employee some six months earlier were very positive. Two standard stress and resilience surveys were conducted and responses compared to measure any changes in stress and anxiety levels across a six months period since training and deployment.
Managers and HR staff confirmed that the introduction of the short morning de-stressing exercise had a very positive effect on the start of the work day. Workers had expressed their gratitude to the company for being ‘given this technique and moment for themselves’. Workers could often be seen using the focusing gestures quietly for themselves to deal with their own issues.
Supervisors had emerged from the first survey as among the more stressed people in the factory. It was therefore significant that feedback from this group showed that they were using the breathing and focusing technique regularly and to good effect. Not only did they use it in the factory together with their teams, but also in the dormitory context where there were sometimes stresses to cope with. Generally they felt that this had helped bring them closer together with the workers with whom they worked and lived.
Both supervisors and managers pointed out that, far from causing a disruption at the start of the working day, the breathing exercise had given increased focus. Not only were people making sure that they were in place to take advantage of the shared moment, but they were returning to their workplaces directly and quietly, without wasting time in chatting. Improved communication was leading to better working.
Worker representatives normally help lead the morning breathing and focusing exercise in the factory. They noted positive differences not only in the factory itself but also in behaviour in the dormitories. Most felt that it helped them to cope with their new responsibilities as representatives.
Some were using the technique to cope with personal issues outside the factory or when there is negative news from home, for example. One woman revealed that she had taught her mother in Bangladesh about the technique over a telephone call and that it had helped her to gain calm in the face of a difficult problem. She felt good about being able to help although she was far away.
Very similar feedback was obtained from the front-line worker groups also. The workers in particular did not distinguish the breathing and focusing exercise as a purely workplace phenomenon. There was widespread acknowledgement that the technique was used and found helpful in dealing with personal issues as well. In general workers felt clearer and calmer before work and in the dormitories. Many used it before sleeping and at rising in the morning. One woman explained how she had taught the technique to her own children with good effect when she went back to Bangladesh for a short visit. One woman had created a little game with her children based on the breathing patterns and had found it very effective in calming them down. Another has used it with her children when they get stressed about their homework.
A group of Indian men also spoke positively about the breathing exercises. This is significant since often men are less ready to admit that they have need of some sort of support in dealing with emotions. The men referred to the exercise as ‘A type of yoga’ and were happy to embrace it to maintain good health.
The positive effects of the combined trainings in Mauritius may soon be brought to bear in the company’s brand new facilities being built in Bangladesh and Madagascar. These approaches will be applied from the start in the new factories to create a firm base to the company’s international expansion.