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opinion

Jim Stanford is economist and director of the Centre for Future Work in Vancouver, and co-author with Daniel Poon of the recent report, Speaking Up, Being Heard, Making Change: The Theory and Practice of Worker Voice in Canada Today.

Canadian workplaces face a daunting array of future challenges, such as automation, new business models or energy transformations. Employers, governments and investors each have key roles to play in preparing for these changes.

But there’s one stakeholder whose potential contribution to managing change is often overlooked or, worse yet, suppressed: the workers themselves. All too often workers are treated like disposable inputs: hired, fired and told what to do. But they have their own visions and priorities for making workplaces safer, more efficient and more humane.

There is abundant empirical evidence that jobs are better when workers can provide input, express opinions and influence change in their workplaces. Providing workers with regular, safe channels of “voice” increases their personal motivation and job satisfaction. It benefits employers, too, through reduced turnover, enhanced productivity and better information flows. And it contributes to improved economic and social outcomes – everything from stronger productivity growth and reduced inequality to improved health.

Unfortunately, however, formally structured voice mechanisms are on the wane in Canadian workplaces. Many managers prefer to centralize control in their own hands. The fragmentation of supply chains and the growth of precarious work mean many jobs are isolated and insecure, with no opportunity to build lasting relationships or communication. The erosion of collective bargaining (especially in the private sector) has also undermined formal systems of workplace dialogue and negotiation. Canadian workplaces are thus missing out on the potential benefits of strong, genuine workers’ voice.

Elsewhere in the world, providing workers with regular, protected channels for voice and input is considered a basic democratic right, protected by law. In many European countries, for example, firms must establish works councils composed of elected employee representatives, who participate in certain workplace decisions and monitor local conditions and practices. In some countries, elected worker reps are even given seats on boards of directors.

Because of this important, mandated role for workers’ voice in corporate governance, these companies are more likely to take a longer-run, balanced approach to decisions that affect their workers. Treating workers like core assets, tapping their knowledge and respecting their preferences lead to greater success in innovation, skills and engagement.

This approach of government-mandated workers’ voice seems unusual in the North American context. But there is one very successful example of statutory worker voice in Canada. Workplace health and safety laws in all provinces require workplaces above a certain size to establish joint health and safety committees. They must meet regularly to discuss emerging hazards, educate workers about best practices, and respond to threats and problems. Occupational health research confirms these joint committees reduce the incidence of accidents and disease.

Why does government feel it can tell employers they must engage with their workers in this way? Because the huge costs of workplace accidents and disease justify a public policy role. Similar logic could apply to mandated voice mechanisms in other areas of work life, too.

Consider skills and training. Employers complain perpetually about “skills shortages” – incongruously, given the millions of Canadians desperate for work. Yet employers underinvest in vocational educational and on-the-job training, relative to other countries (and especially poorly compared with Europe). Governments spend big money on training programs.

As a quid pro quo, they should mandate joint workplace training committees: to regularly catalogue training needs, canvass workers about their training interests, and sponsor training initiatives to lift skills and boost productivity. The public has an interest in a more skilled, agile work force. That justifies policy action to push employers to a more consistent and collaborative approach to training.

Statutory voice requirements could play a vital role in addressing other workplace challenges, too – especially those with broader social implications (such as technological change, combatting racism and sexism, or planning energy transitions). In every case, change will occur more surely and effectively if workers are involved, with real influence, from the beginning.

Building a work culture that better respects and protects the voices, preferences and priorities of workers will help build more productive, inclusive and safe workplaces. Through a combination of better management, pressure from workers and unions and, in some cases, intervention by government, we can build a more inclusive and balanced culture of workplace decision-making. And the economy will be better off for it.

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