By Madeline Janis
This column originally appeared in Forbes
In the past 20 years, U.S. manufacturing jobs have become more insecure and precarious. The use of temporary workers has increased dramatically, with 47 percent of the U.S. temporary workforce consisting of manufacturing and industrial workers. While the economy improves, manufacturing wages have continued to decrease and over one third of manufacturing workers are now on some form of public assistance. Unions, which have historically protected workers when they brought up concerns about safety, production mistakes and inefficiencies, now represent less than 10 percent of the manufacturing workforce.
The result of this shop-floor instability: the constant presence of fear. Fear of losing your job, fear of harassment, and fear of not getting a promotion.
As one worker from a factory in rural Illinois told me, “When I report a safety hazard, I immediately get interrogated by my lead and branded as a troublemaker. That means I have to decide whether I want to risk injury or whether I want my life to be hell.”
Research suggests this fear of retaliation is well-founded. A 2009 report from the National Employment Law Project found that 43 percent of low-wage workers surveyed in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago experienced illegal retaliation from their employer after filing a safety-related complaint. A recent survey from the Ethics and Compliance Initiative found that the percentage of employees claiming to have experienced retaliation climbed from 22 percent to 44 percent since 2013. An Equal Employment Opportunities Commission report found that 75 percent of all people reporting sexual harassment in their workplaces experienced retaliation.
Production worker fear is bad for worker morale and well-being, and it could also be affecting manufacturing industry health. In the past 12 years, productivity in U.S. manufacturing has declined by an average of 0.3 percent per year. The same products are being produced with more labor hours and slightly higher costs, despite the increased efficiencies created by the use of robots and other speed-enhancing technologies. While some researchers speculate that lower worker educational attainment is to blame, the fear and uncertainty faced by manufacturing workers may also be a contributing cause.
I have heard a common refrain from many factory workers over the past 10 years. They remain silent despite having good ideas for improving production, reducing mistakes and safety hazards because of intimidating factory floor environments. As one Southern-based heavy-equipment manufacturing worker recently told me, “When a supervisor tells me to caulk over a mistake, I do it. Complaining to upper management would likely get me fired and I need this job.”
25 years ago, management expert Dr. W. Edwards Denning wrote about 14 best practices for improving company productivity, emphasizing the value of firm-level commitment to shop floor feedback and driving out fear from the workplace. Dennings argued that fear undermines teamwork and “invites wrong figures. Bearers of bad news fare badly. To keep his job, anyone may present to his boss only good news.”
Other experts have also emphasized the benefit to a company’s bottom line of creating a shop floor environment that encourages direct worker feedback. A case study from the Harvard Business Review describes the successful effort of German materials manufacturer Isola Group to reorganize production based on worker ideas.
“The head of site, production planner, and site controller turned their workspace on the shop floor into a ‘project office’ and continued to invite informal feedback; soon workers were dropping by to offer suggestions or report problems.” The result of this change: the plant achieved a yield boost of four percent, from 91 to 95 percent, with each percentage point of improvement representing about $850,000 in annual material-cost savings.
In the U.S., the battery-electric bus manufacturer BYD recently negotiated a Community Benefits Agreement with a coalition organized by Jobs to Move America, the non-profit organization that I run. Workers at the company are now unionized and have a collective bargaining agreement with SMART Local 105 that established a process for ongoing and direct shop floor feedback, including improved safety training from the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration office.
“Since we negotiated the CBA and started working with the union, our quality control has improved significantly. Our workers now catch mistakes at a much faster clip and the morale on the shop floor has never been better,” said BYD Vice President Bobby Hill.
When manufacturers embrace factory worker feedback, productivity and business improve. Workers are more willing to step up to supervisory and management positions. Factories become a place where workers want to stay and contribute over a long period of time. And importantly for business owners, this can help their bottom line.