Want motivated workers who feel their rights are respected? You need a proper grievance mechanism

Monica Romis Innovation, Private sector, Rights

How can companies set up robust systems to ensure they hear and act on workers’ complaints and concerns? Monica Romis of the Oxfam Business Advisory Service introduces a new grievance mechanism toolkit developed for Reckitt that will help tackle discrimination and inequality throughout global supply chains

You can download the new toolkit here (picture: Reckitt)

There is growing interest from companies in grievance mechanisms as an important part of respecting human rights in global supply chains. However, they often struggle to establish robust mechanisms, leaving workers, farmers and communities unable to share their concerns or get them addressed. This blog considers some of the barriers to effective grievance mechanisms and introduces a new toolkit that can help companies address them.

Four insights from testing the Grievance Mechanism Toolkit

1. Many manufacturers think they already have adequate grievance mechanisms and workers just don’t have many grievances
2. But the toolkit reveals that in fact many grievances are missed – and allows more issues to be raised and resolved
3. Worker participation throughout the process from design to implementation is key to building an effective grievance mechanism
4. It’s crucial to empower workers with the skills, knowledge and tools they need to fully participate in the grievance process

What is a grievance mechanism?

Grievance mechanism is the term for the systems that enable workers and communities to raise issues, complaints and concerns about things that negatively affect them at work. Safe, transparent and gender-sensitive grievance mechanisms are essential to increasing workers’ voice and tackling discrimination and inequality for workers in global supply chains.

As well as allowing firms to hear and address workers’ concerns, grievance mechanisms raise the overall visibility of human rights in supply chains and can alert firms to issues before they escalate into more intractable problems. They can also strengthen workforce motivation; address low productivity that is caused by low morale, absenteeism and illness; improve worker retention; and save on training costs by reducing employee turnover.

Do workers trust your system and know how to use it?

Over years of engaging with both companies and workers, Oxfam has found that companies tend to overestimate users’ understanding and trust of grievance mechanisms.

Processes that look good on paper, such as a suggestion box or whistleblowing hotline, often do not work in practice, mostly because of a lack of access or trust. People don’t know where to report things, how the system works, or are unclear about the types of issue they can raise. They may believe their grievances will not be addressed or fear that there will be negative repercussions if they speak up.

‘People don’t know where to report things, or are unclear about the types of issue they can raise… They may fear negative repercussions if they speak up’

Such challenges prompted Reckitt, a global health, hygiene and nutrition company, to work with the Oxfam Business Advisory Service (OBAS) to develop a Grievance Mechanism Toolkit. We tested the toolkit with several suppliers across different regions (India, Pakistan, China, Peru and the UK). These suppliers all thought they had adequate grievance mechanisms and workers simply didn’t have many grievances to raise. Using the toolkit, they quickly discovered that this was not the case and were able to adjust how they worked to receive and resolve more issues from workers.

Make sure you engage with users from the start

Our number one piece of advice? It’s an easy one: engage with the people who will use it – your workers. OBAS supported companies testing the toolkit to actively involve users in the planning, design and implementation of the grievance mechanism. This is not always easy or intuitive for companies, so the toolkit provides practical steps on how to do this.

‘Don’t be scared of the word grievance, move away from it and release workers to talk about their experience at work. It’s about how well you want to know your workforce’

All companies said they gained value from workers’ input.  As one manager said: “It was eye-opening that speaking to employees can give you very valuable feedback, if you give them the right forum to share ideas.”

As set out in the toolkit, workers should participate throughout the process, from design to implementation of the grievance mechanism.

Key steps to engagement are:

1. Design

Set up a “grievance mechanism (GM) taskforce” that includes representatives from management and workers, to work together on the design (or review) of the grievance mechanism policy. This is the first step: management should sit down together with workers and listen to their views and needs.

At this initial stage, it is important to have an open conversation around the meaning of the word “grievance,” which is often perceived by workers as only referring to the most serious issues. Workers should be encouraged to broaden this definition so the system can capture more minor issues. As one senior manager said: “There often needs to be a change in mindset about what is meant by grievance”.

Workers should also be involved in identifying potential issues that can be raised through the grievance mechanism and the channels they prefer to use to reduce any barriers to access (e.g. suggestion boxes placed in private areas, confidential phone lines, email, text messaging, focal point colleagues), especially for marginalised groups of workers, such as women and migrant workers.

2. Implementation

To increase transparency and accountability, workers should be involved in the implementation of the grievance mechanism to ensure grievances are resolved fairly and to monitor any outcomes. Direct involvement of workers will increase its legitimacy and workers’ trust in it.

As best practice, workers should be involved in the grievance mechanism through their form of representation, such as unions. The grievance mechanism should also be a central priority in the dialogue at factory level between employer and employees. Even if there are no unions the examples below show there are still ways to engage with workers in a meaningful way.

In the toolkit we suggest two ways to do this. One way is to appoint some workers as “grievance officers”, who are responsible for the entire process, from receiving grievances, to sorting and processing, to monitoring and evaluation.

For instance, in one company with a trade union on site, the GM taskforce decided to appoint the president of the union as grievance officer. In another company with no union on site, the GM taskforce agreed to have workers elect colleagues as “focal points”. Another firm elected two grievance officers: one man and one woman to balance gender, where one of the pair was an employee and the other an agency worker to also balance employment type.

Another way to involve workers in the implementation of the grievance mechanism is to set up a grievance committee, made up of management and workers to jointly discuss grievances and help ensure an objective and transparent process.

Time to start constructive dialogue with workers

A key lesson from trialling the toolkit is that companies often have assumptions about what workers want: but proper engagement shows them the reality is quite different. Our process is particularly useful in exploring and discussing gender-sensitive grievances.

We found that it is only when workers have channels they trust to raise concerns and grievances – channels that really respond to their needs and preferences – that firms reap the day-to-day benefits for both workers and management. 

In this project with Reckitt, we have shown how it’s possible to develop robust channels that workers trust and use to raise concerns and grievance, ending up with a more motivated workforce that feels free to share constructive suggestions with management. The toolkit has step by step guidance on how to do so, and Oxfam Business Advisory Service can also support if needed.

How to create your own grievance mechanism

Want to review or create your own grievance mechanism? Download the toolkit now, which offers concrete guidance and tips on how to get started, and get in touch to let us know how you are getting on with it or if you need support. As one manager said: “Don’t be scared of the word grievance: move away from it and release workers to talk about their experiences at work. It’s about how well you want to know your workforce.”

Interested in finding out more? Come to our webinar on the Grievance Mechanism Toolkit later this month.


Monica Romis

Monica Romis is a Private Sector Human Rights Advisor at the Oxfam Business Advisory Service

The Grievance Mechanism Toolkit developed for Reckitt by the Oxfam Business Advisory Service (OBAS) provides guidance aimed at first-tier suppliers. The toolkit is mainly aimed at manufacturing sites but the underlying principles can be applied to other sectors and groups. Register here to attend our webinar introducing the toolkit on July 19.

Reckitt is a global health, hygiene and nutrition company, whose brands include Dettol, Durex and Harpic.

The Oxfam Business Advisory Service harnesses Oxfam’s experience and expertise to support companies in implementing positive practices across their supply chains. Want to know more? Find out more about the Oxfam Business Advisory Service (OBAS) here and the way Oxfam works with the private sector here or get in touch directly by emailing advisory@oxfam.org.uk.