If workers are assets – how are companies protecting them?

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For many retail workers, a living wage, predictable schedules, guaranteed minimum hours and access to benefits seem like impossible dreams. The stresses of juggling family responsibilities and trying to make ends meet every month are taking their toll on many workers and their families.

For those of us who spend time analysing corporate annual reports, inevitably we run across the phrase “our workers are our most valuable asset”. But upon further reading, we find ourselves scratching our heads when little additional information is provided on how those companies are actually protecting and investing in this asset.

At a time when levels of economic inequality threaten both economic growth and social equity at the global level and when workers across company operations are facing low wages, insecure employment, working poverty and other kinds of precarious work situations, it seems appropriate to expect companies to shed more light on their approaches to labour standards and worker’s rights. They should also demonstrate the role they are playing in contributing to decent work outcomes for all workers.

So why are companies still so silent about the vast majority of workers involved in their businesses?

One reason is that nobody is demanding better quality information. If we don’t ask, they won’t tell. While disclosure of executive pay packages has improved markedly as a result of outcries over high executive pay, far too little attention has been directed to company approaches to pay practices across their workforces.

This lack of attention can be interpreted as acceptance of a common narrative in corporate boardrooms that attracting the best candidates to executive positions requires competitive (aka exorbitant) pay packages and that this compensation is an investment in the business. Workers, on the other hand, are viewed as a cost to the business and therefore a drag on profits.

But a growing group of institutional investors is trying to change this narrative, globally calling for better transparency and disclosure from companies on their workplace practices and policies.

Here in Canada, I am involved in a project called Valuing Decent Work. With support from the Atkinson Foundation, we are mobilising investor voices in Canada to amplify the call for better quality information from companies about their approaches to decent work.

Today we released a report that looks at labour practice and workforce disclosures from five Canadian and seven global retail companies, including Carrefour, Tesco, Walmart and Loblaw among others. Based on our findings, Canadian retail companies are not providing the same level of transparency regarding their approaches to decent work as their global peers.

Our report concludes that investors have a unique opportunity to hold companies accountable for and improve the quality of information available about corporate decent work practices.

Companies owe it to their investors to demonstrate how they are protecting, investing in and cultivating this crucial asset – their workers.