Making ‘Worker Voice’ Work, at Home and Across the Globe!

Workers wearing white clothing and face masks protest in Myanmar. Many are holding signs.
Members of a workers’ organization protesting in Myanmar. Photo credit: AHS (a pseudonym to protect the photographer)

Last month, my colleagues from the Bureau of International Labor Affairs and I visited the Forum Silaturahmi Pelaut Indonesia, a 2,300-member community-based organization supporting Indonesian migrant fishers in Taiwan. We sat with members of the fishing organization as they recounted stories of long hours, dangerous conditions, and excessive recruitment fees that often transferred as debts to be deducted from their monthly wages. They knew that real change required collective solutions that address business practices that drive the industry. And yet, they noted how hard it was for them to gain legal recognition for their union, the Pingtung County Migrant Fisher’s Union.

Several American females sit around a table outdoors with members of an Indonesian migrant fishers organization.
Thea Lee and ILAB staff speaking with the chairman and members of the migrant fishers organization, Forum Silaturahmi Pelaut Indonesia.

In nearly 30 years working in this field, I have heard many similar worker stories. I’ve engaged with governments, employers and workers in support of their efforts to make real, concrete improvements. And throughout my career I’ve seen it work, in real terms from seeing workers build strong, representative unions, to witnessing unions and employers increase their understanding of each other and how to bargain, to the successful conclusion of freedom of association guidelines in the Myanmar garment sector.

An American male stands in a room full of seated workers, sharing information on workers' rights.
Chris Kazlauskas, the author, raises workers' awareness of the new laws and labor relations system outside of Monywa, Myanmar, in 2014.

Countless initiatives – both public and private – seek to promote ‘worker voice,’ but many fall short in realizing genuine, effective worker voice, based on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. This is why I am proud of a new ILAB initiative that answers the question, what is worker voice? This year-long project brought together experts from across a variety of fields, from academics and multilateral institutions to labor relations practitioners, culminating in a new report: "Worker Voice: What it is, what it isn't, and why it matters."

Worker voice is the ability of workers to come together, collectively articulate their demands and seek better terms and conditions of work. It is a bedrock principle of labor relations. The report identifies components of effective worker voice, addresses many of the challenges to realizing it and shares the learnings from seven in-depth case studies.

When they work collectively, workers become a critical part to effectively remedying – and preventing – problems and addressing risks in the workplace, in the community and in the broader society. Empowered workers, organized and with effective mechanisms for engaging through their unions, play a critical role in promoting equity, reducing inequality and balancing the needs and interests of workers with those of business. That is what makes a vibrant democracy. But it is crucial that when we talk about “worker voice” that we are talking about the same thing. "Worker voice” is not setting up a suggestion box or hotline in the workplace and calling it a day. That’s why ILAB’s efforts to promote worker voice are rooted in workers’ rights to organize and to bargain collectively. And now we have the research to back it up.

Chris Kazlauskas is deputy director of the Office of Trade and Labor Affairs at the Bureau of International Labor Affairs. Follow ILAB on X/Twitter at @ILAB_DOL and on LinkedIn.