Joesph was the 50 something black gardener in our old office in Jo-burg. He came by weekly to tidy the lawn and wash the company car. Like usual he was unfailingly polite and smartly dressed in crisp slacks and a white shirt under a green wool vest. As much as I found his wardrobe stylish I did think it was somewhat out of place for the chores of gardening and cleaning. It wasn’t functional but it did speak to a certain dignity he possessed.
More important than Joesph’s attire was his submissive demeanor. Under apartheid, blacks were were given an inferior education to whites all legalized under The Bantu Education Act of 1952. The goal was to socially engineer a docile black population who would fill the blue collar ranks of South Africa. The Act succeeded marvelously with Joseph.
In his tasks around the office, Joesph would finish them with vigilance and blind faith. Give him a shovel and he would dig a hole. Ask him to tend to the garden and he would seek permission before pruning an out-of-control rose bush. He rarely exercised the latitude he was given. Rather, he focused narrowly on the task at hand and completed them without question.
The black young professionals, who reported to me, surprisingly behaved similarly. Many of them completed their degrees in business, law or theology. Some of them were heavily involved in resisting the racist government. With this resume I assumed they would be determined, opinionated and directed within the workplace.
They weren’t. Instead I found, more often than not, a passive workforce that didn’t question bad or good decisions. They just "went with the flow". That might be desirable in some work situations but in complex and fast paced projects involving unknown variables, one wants plenty of dialog and positive (maybe even negative) discord. With it one is richer and more likely to succeed.
Working on an assembly line where every minute of productivity is measured and rewarded leaves little room for shop floor debate. Workers are paid to assemble not question. Layer on top a culture that prides itself on conformity and a political milieu that tolerates very little dissent and one has a highly vulnerable if not acquiescent workforce.
There are over 21,000 workers in our top twenty contract factories. Amongst this workforce, we’ve interviewed almost 800 workers in small groups and individually. From these meetings we’ve been unable to get a deep understanding of what workers think and aspire for. Either because the workers are leery of letting their guards down and or they’ve been pressured to respond in a certain manner. We do know that from our detailed review of a factory’s paper work, workers are putting in long hours and are probably not being paid minimum wage. What we don’t know is how do the workers feel about this and what part do they play in creating this reality.
Listening to the voices of workers is essential to improving factory conditions. The challenge is finding a medium that encourages safe disclosure within the cultural and political realities workers find themselves in. Last week we piloted an intensive project to tackle this dilemma. The tentative results look promising and we’ll disclose more of this shortly.
Speaking out is more natural for some than others. This is human nature. Perhaps Joseph the gardener was basically a shy individual or that factory workers are just young and short in experience and confidence. Regardless, all individuals have a right to speak and everyone of us has a duty to protect that right and to listen as well.