It’s time to focus on information literacy for workers

We often hear the phrase ‘information is power’ but on the topic of ‘information literacy’, it is important to ask what we mean by the term, and more importantly, what it means for workers.

Information literacy is a concept that originated in the 1970s in the United States, a result of the development of information technology and the accompanying information explosion, along with economic progress and a shift towards neoliberalism. These trends required skills and knowledge to enable navigating the overabundance of information, but also to support greater productivity, competitiveness, higher profits and faster progress.

Today, however, information literacy is increasingly viewed not just as a set of skills for finding and using information, but also for evaluating it, i.e., enabling critical consciousness and ethical use of information. According to this understanding, information literacy is strongly linked to empowerment, social justice and civic activism, thus affirming its role and value in a broader social context.

However, there has been very little study of the correlation between information literacy and workers’ rights, the perspective of workers and how information literacy can empower workers to protect their rights. It is this gap that motivated me to research the value of information literacy in the context of workers’ rights.

In April 2021, I carried out an online survey of 500, nationally representative respondents-workers with employment contracts, with data collected by the Hendal market research agency and financial support from the German foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

The research examined the patterns of information behaviour of workers and their self-assessed level of being informed about workers’ rights, and of information competences. It also sought – amongst other things – to determine whether there are differences in the level of being informed and in information behaviour according to different categories of workers, including whether they are members of trade unions.

Union members are better informed about rights

The research yielded a number of interesting results that are presented in part here. The complete results of the study are available in the 2022 paper, co-authored with my PhD supervisor Dr Sonja Špiranec, Informed, active, empowered: research into workers’ information literacy in the context of rights at work.

Firstly, it showed that most workers estimate that they are quite highly informed about their rights, with union members showing a significantly higher level of being informed about workers’ rights than non-union members. Union members are also less likely to feel that they have deliberately been denied information; that they do not have enough information; and that they do not know how to assess which information is relevant or where to seek information about their rights. Union activity at the level of the employer in general has a positive impact on workers’ level of being informed: workers in a union-organised workplace, compared with non-unionised ones, state a higher level of being informed about workers’ rights.

Being informed about workers’ rights strongly correlates with the violation of rights and the active struggle for rights. Some 38 per cent of respondents experienced a violation of rights, and 19 per cent said they do not know if their rights had ever been violated. Workers who more positively assess their level of being informed about workers’ rights are more likely to state that their rights have not been violated, while a higher incidence of violations of rights was recorded among those respondents who felt that their level of being informed was weaker.

Also, respondents who are better informed about workers’ rights more frequently seek the protection of their rights and are more likely to do so through a lawsuit with the help of their union.

Workers who are better acquainted with their rights are also inclined to advocate for them, mainly by proposing changes to works rules and collective bargaining agreements, as well as actively participating in trade unions. Workers who are more informed about their rights believe that this affects their overall job quality. On the other hand, most respondents who are not ready to fight actively for the protection and improvement of workers’ rights report self-assessed lower information competences and levels of being informed about these rights. The main reasons why these workers are unwilling to seek protection and fight actively for the improvement of their rights are fear, defeatism and fatalism. Expectedly, and worryingly, workers actively seek information about their rights only when they think they have been violated or when they are not sure what rights they have, while at the same time stating they do not perceive the need for information.

When asked about the main challenges about keeping informed, respondents point out frequent changes in regulations, the perception of not obtaining complete and true information and the perception of conscious withholding of information. However, although they rate their own information competences relatively highly, workers still recognise the need for additional education and support in this area, primarily about where to find information about their rights and especially on how to protect these rights.

What does this mean for trade unions?

The conducted research confirmed the findings of earlier union research, but also what is well-known from practice: trade unions make a difference! Union members are better informed about their rights, and they know the value of this information. Where unions are active, violations of workers’ rights are less frequent, and workers are more ready to fight actively for them. Unions must persevere in informing, raising awareness and educating workers about the significance of union organising and the role of unions, the credibility and reliability of information, as well as the importance of being informed about rights. For instance, this need was recognised by the Croatian trade union confederation SSSH (Union of Autonomous Trade Unions of Croatia), which produced the Know Your Rights online resource as part of its decent work campaign and its concept of ‘Work Fit for People’. Information really is power; the skills and knowledge needed to find, critically evaluate and use it – information literacy – are indispensable in today’s post-truth age and in the informational, social and political environment characterised by the crisis of trust and democracy.

The implications of this research include, amongst other things, the need to tackle an almost paradoxical situation: on the one hand, the employer is a key authority for workers in informing them about their rights, but at the same time, the employer is a key reason why they do not actively inform themselves and fight more actively for their rights (for fear of dismissal, retaliation and similar consequences).

This implies that unions in particular, but also authorities such as labour inspectorates, need to examine the reasons why this is so, including the need to investigate the barriers to union organising in order to remove them. This places before unions the important task of building critical consciousness among workers in order to empower them to recognize and resist oppression and exploitation.

This research has shown that workers are often unaware of their oppressed position and that they act contrary to their own interests. This lack of critical consciousness and fatalism is particularly worrying in the context of the protection of workers’ rights because many workers do not recognise injustice or believe that change is possible. Raising awareness of the positive outcomes and impacts of trade union work is crucial in breaking such prejudices, and thus in advancing workers’ rights in general.

We should not forget about the importance of strengthening democracy in the workplace in order to provide workers with a voice and an influence on the conditions and organisation of work, for which they themselves have expressed a readiness to advocate actively. Active and informed workers, along with an understanding of the power of information, are a fundamental prerequisite for achieving better rights and social justice, as well as a dignified life. The role of trade unions in this is irreplaceable.