Sunday, 16 February 2014

A closer look at the "Hobbycraft foreign language ban" story

There has just been a media story about the Hobbycraft warehouse banning workers from speaking any language other than English

This has brought back memories of my involvement with the first warehouse to do this - Waterstones (Unipart).  As far as I know, these two are the only warehouses in the UK to have introduced such a policy. Both warehouses are based in Burton on Trent...

The fact that both warehouses are based on the same industrial park (Centrum 100) certainly makes this look like a huge coincidence. Hobbycraft are new to Burton - I assume they are not aware of the media storm caused at Waterstones. 

So what is going on here, and why Burton?   Does Burton have particular language problems?

A closer look reveals this is nothing to do with language at all...

Firstly, it's really not that much of a surprise to me, so I don't think it's much of a coincidence. Most warehouses in this area recognise a union. Policies and procedures are discussed in consultation with workers before being announced. That doesn't happen at Hobbycraft or Waterstones.

Waterstones (Unipart) and Hobbycraft are two of the local exceptions to the rule. Both are non-union warehouses, leaving both brands very exposed to disgruntled workers going directly to the local newspapers. 

There is also a very important difference between these two seemingly identical stories. At Waterstones, Unite members resisted and petitioned the policy as part of a union recognition effort, whereas at Hobbycraft Unite have not (yet) been actively involved. The Hobbycraft workers have no representation. Until that changes, they will be stuck with this resented policy.

At Waterstones warehouse, the workers won the issue. The Unite petition was strongly supported, and the company backed down. By the time the workers won, the media had moved on. The workers victory was not reported.  

Management style tends to be more autocratic when there is no mechanism to be challenged or held to account. In logistics, my experience has been that this is always the case.

I'm tempted to call the language ban policy "a classic case of a sledgehammer to crack a nut" . Without doubt, It is overbearing and without justification. But I'd be exaggerating to imply there is a problem that needs fixing. At both warehouses, English is spoken to a high standard by virtually all workers.

Most people outside of these warehouses I speak to either see this as a Human Rights issue, or (more commonly judging by the comments sections of the newspapers) strongly agree with the actions of the employers because of an incorrect assumption that the workers are not speaking English to begin with. 

But few workers I speak to see this as a Human Rights issue.   

In both cases this was never about language.  In both cases, there was no problem that needed to be solved.

In both cases, this was about management flexing it's muscle.  This was just one of many examples that could be given of a "my way or the highway" style of management. 

The truth is really simple.  Management did it...because they could.

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