Coming Unstitched

Laura Tyson

Moderating a panel last week at Prime Source Forum I was struck by how little the apparel and footwear sector has changed. Sure, automation has brought efficiencies and sophistication but essentially it has remained one of the most human-intensive industries since its inception.

So you would be right to ask why apparel manufacturers are quite so bad at managing people. Why do labour disputes flair up so frequently? Why are strikes in the sector almost part and parcel of production?

The truth is the manufacturers are experts at managing people, thousands of them at a time in fact, often across highly diverse markets, languages, cultures and certainly across socio-economic stratas. It’s a constant delicate balancing act of satisfying customers (often their contrary demands for high standards and low prices) and keeping a hefty workforce both content and productive.

Yet whilst they are experts at managing people, manufacturers are on the whole pretty poor at communicating with their workforce. Ill thought through communication is often the root cause of labour disputes, particularly in the days of rapid fire rumours through social media.

Brand customers have sophisticated teams of communication professionals, handling communication with their consumers, their workforce, regulators, investors and suppliers, across their plethora of communication channels (websites, social media, traditional media, above the line marketing, annual reports etc).

The manufacturers on the other hand typically have nothing more than a small team of HR people, usually with little-to-no training in internal communication, despite having a workforce usually running into the tens of thousands across multiple jurisdictions and languages.

This misbalance is the source of headaches for brands. The transparency agenda has brought their manufacturers out of the shadows and never has the link between brand and manufacturer been more public. As a result any issues at the factory are quickly associated with specific brands and reputational damage closely follows.

Keen to avoid reputational damage though association with strikes in far flung places the brands should consider investing in the communication skills of the manufacturing partners. Some savvy global brands refer their manufacturers to us to help them through challenging change management scenarios, of which there is a great deal brewing in southern China currently, but most leave it too late.

Improving the internal communication capabilities of your manufacturer has multiple benefits, happier workforce, fewer disputes, but can also be an excellent way to improve compliance. It’s a win-win for brands and manufacturers.