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Growth due to inclusive decision-making: The Japanese example

I was fortunate enough to attend a two-week training course in Tokyo on the Japanese principles of Human Resources- and Employee Relations Management in March 2018. While in that beautiful, foreign country, I was confronted with several equally foreign concepts that could very well find application in the South African context.

The Japanese people place great emphasis on humility and respect, and this behaviour is not only reserved for one area of their lives. They bring this attitude to their places of work and are in the interesting position where they need to introduce plans in their workplaces to encourage a healthy work-life balance, instead of having employees work more than 60 hours per week.

This imbalance has hampered diversity in Japanese workplaces, as women often do not return to work after having children. A country with both a low birth-rate and a low number of eligible workers (unemployment is around 2%), can ill afford losing workers due to childcare responsibilities.

In South Africa, the unemployment rate is around 27%, but women make up 45% of the workforce, and the fear that competent female employees are lost to the labour market after having children, is equally pertinent.

This is where the first principle arises, that could easily move the South African labour market forward: No decisions are taken about company strategy or new initiatives to overcome problems (such as the diversity management and work-life balance issues) without the input and buy-in of workers and management alike. In South Africa, we tend to fall into old, learned patterns of behaviour in workplaces, where management and workers or organised labour are on opposite sides of the table, instead of working together to find solutions to common problems, or moving towards a common goal.

Interestingly, the Japanese trade union movement is unique, in that there are thousands of workplace-based unions, instead of the large, industry-based unions we have in South Africa. The companies we were fortunate enough to visit, regard those unions as a very important stakeholder in their business, and there are even cases of what South Africans would term a closed shop agreement, where union membership is mandatory to be employed at that particular workplace.

This is the second principle that might bring about labour reform: In Japan, unions are recognised as the mouthpiece of the workers, and therefore given an equal seat at any decision-making process. This inclusivity has the unintended (but very positive) outcome that strike action rarely occurs at Japanese workplaces. Unions have moved away from pure socialist doctrine to being growth focused, and that appears to have coincided with being made a part of decisions around the future of their members.

The question arises: How much of the movement towards militant unionism in South Africa stems from unhappiness with how workplaces are managed, or on the other hand, how much the cooperation between management and workers could be improved if all parties concerned moved towards a model of mutual interest bargaining instead of settling into comfortable, predictable, adversarial roles? This model is not limited to unionised workplaces but can be adapted to fit any set of circumstances, as parties participate on equal footing, with a common goal in mind.

The last principle that could find application in our context is the Japanese willingness to listen to and explore opinions other than what is traditionally available. In our group we were 22 experienced human resources or employee relations professionals, from 17 developing countries. We were there to learn from an ancient culture how to make changes to the benefit of our own companies and countries. In certain areas the complete opposite happened: Japan has a massive diversity problem, which we as South Africans (as one example) are decades ahead of addressing in comparison.

Our lecturers and guest speakers were eager to listen to us, even though they were all academics with very long lists of credentials. They wanted us to keep in touch and discuss solutions to their problems too. The humility and respect were eye-opening, and it showed me that South Africans do, at times, develop an insular response to universal problems. You cannot solve a problem if you stare at the problem, nurse the problem and keep your entire focus on the problem all the time. You will forget to look up and see the solution.

Our country’s problems are by no means so unique that we cannot search the world for an answer. Our labour market has plus points we can sell to the world. I believe that inclusivity, including not making decisions affecting employees, without them, as well as including bargaining partners on equal footing and being open to solutions from unlikely sources, are valuable lessons to be learnt from the Japanese people.


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