In 2011 when the IUF was engaged in discussions with the global management of a leading food and personal care goods company over abusive precarious employment arrangements at a tea factory in India, the factory manager called all the workers together in a “town hall” meeting (a meeting on the factory floor). He started by criticizing the union for raising the issue with global management through the IUF, and added “fuck the IUF!” for good measure. He went on to say that the dispute with the union is a “family matter” describing it as “a fight between husband and wife”. He then asked rhetorically: “And what happens when there’s a fight between husband and wife?” To which a worker shouted out, “The relatives come running!” Everyone laughed. The factory manager let loose with more swearing and verbal abuse, demanding he be shown respect. When an interpreter translated the audio recording she was shocked by the swearing that followed. (It can’t be reprinted here.) But our members were not surprised at all.

In the corporate world the use of “we’re a family” supposedly refers to the care that the company has for its employees, mutual loyalty and commitment. But in reality it establishes the factory manager or general manager as the “father” and workers as “the children.” This paternalism allows a dangerous assertion of absolute power, which then opens the door to all sorts of disciplinary action and abuse, including sexual harassment. As our members often comment: “What kind of family do they come from?”

Another question that comes up time and again when management declares “we’re a family” is: who exactly is included in the family? The widespread abuse of precarious employment arrangements results in a large proportion of workers engaged on a casual or fixed-term basis with lower wages, fewer benefits and greater insecurity. They are decidedly not in the family. Nor are workers in the outsourced and third-party operations who make a tremendous contribution to business growth and profits, but do not benefit from it.

Back in 2011 none of our members working in any transnational company in the region were surprised by the “we’re a family” rhetoric (or the abuse that comes with it). A decade later the claim by management that “we’re a family” remains widespread and a younger generation of management seems to actually believe it.

Writing in The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker, warns of the dangers of this and how “we’re a family” translates in the workplace:

When I hear something like We’re like family here, I silently complete the analogy: We’ll foist obligations upon you, expect your unconditional devotion, disrespect your boundaries, and be bitter if you prioritize something above us.

Pinsker argues that from a business point of view this is counter-productive:

When a business is presented as a family, its workers may feel pressure to pledge an unreasonable degree of loyalty to their employer, putting up with long hours, mistreatment, and the erosion of work-life boundaries, all in the spirit of harmony and a shared purpose. [See Joe Pinsker, “The Dark Side of Saying Work Is ‘Like a Family'”, The Atlantic, February 17, 2022.]

Our members across the region share a common experience of this. Management frequently mismanages staffing and scheduling and turns to our members to asked them to undertake unplanned overtime, often unpaid. The request (often communicated via WhatsApp or Messenger with the requisite emojis to show it’s all very friendly) is presented as voluntary but is loaded with pressure. Saying no is disloyal and lets everyone down, there will be consequences in any performance review, and you should do it because we’re family.

Saying no to excessive and irregular working hours not only shows a lack of loyalty and obligation fitting for a family, it is also reported upwards to higher management as a lack of “flexibility” among workers. With local management failing to hire enough workers and mismanaging schedules and planning, workers are then asked 40 minutes before the end of their shift to do an extra two hours. If they say no (because their real family is expecting them to be home), they are deemed disloyal and higher management is told that union members are not flexible enough.

This happened most recently in the Malaysian factory of a leading global dairy company whose corporate management used this to justify the hiring of migrant workers recruited from overseas. Migrant workers on short-term contracts would be more “flexible”. The subsequent raid by the immigration police and detention of the migrant workers recruited and employed illegally demonstrated that flexibility actually meant vulnerability (no power to say, No!) And at no point were they considered family.

One of the most common issues raised by fast food and restaurant workers in the region is the prevalence of “loyalty work”. Loyalty work is the unpaid work that restaurant workers are obliged to undertake at the end of each shift. It can range from 15 minutes to two hours. It is not compulsory but is obligatory – in the sense of family obligation. Working without pay at the end of a shift expresses loyalty to the company and co-workers and is reinforced by the same family rhetoric.

As our members in food services point out, this “loyalty” is not mutual. It only goes one way. Workers are expected to work without pay but the company can still reassign, transfer or fire them without hesitation. In the IUF Asia/Pacific Food Services Workers Meeting held on June 26, 2022, restaurant and fast food workers from 13 countries all recounted the same experiences and agreed unanimously that “loyalty work” is simply wage theft.

Ironically, on the few occasions that digital platform food delivery riders might encounter a real human being representing management, they also hear “we’re a family”. This is in a situation where companies like Food Panda are fighting an all out battle to prevent legislation that would establish their responsibility as employers.

In October 2021, Joshua A. Luna wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review with the illuminating title: “The Toxic Effects of Branding Your Workplace a ‘Family'”. Luna points out that calling the company a family not only exposes employees to abuse, but also extends loyalty to covering up any wrongdoing:

Numerous examples and research show that overly loyal people are more likely to participate in unethical acts to keep their jobs and are also more likely to be exploited by their employer. These could manifest as being asked to work unreasonable hours or on projects or assignments unrelated to your role, or keeping things under wraps because it is in the company’s (read: family) best interest. We’re all in this together, so you have to play your part, right?

What corporate management does not seem to understand is that “family loyalty” can be applied by local management to cover up all sorts of mismanagement, non-compliance and corruption. In our recent experience, a leading global company with a substantial water business in Indonesia failed completely in its corporate governance and oversight to identify massive and widespread corruption. There can be no doubt that the notion of being “family” played a crucial role in preventing any whistle-blowing. In fact, the whistle-blowers were terminated for their breach of the cardinal rule of loyalty.

The consequences of this can be very dangerous. Family loyalty in the workplace or company is one of the most common forms of pressure that workers face to under-report or misreport unsafe work, industrial accidents and injuries. Again it’s the rhetoric of “we’re in this together” and that covering up injuries and accidents is in the family’s best interests. Far from being rhetoric, this is literally putting workers’ lives at risk.

As Justin Pot from the firm Zapier advised companies in a blog post on June 4, 2021:

Your company isn’t a family, and I think pretending otherwise is unhealthy and unproductive.

Under the sub-heading, “Families don’t fire people”, Pot observes:

I bet you’ve disappointed your mother countless times—I know I’ve disappointed mine. Mom never fired me for poor performance, though, and she also didn’t lay me off when quarterly projections didn’t hit the target metrics. Family loyalty isn’t based on performance because that would be absurd.

But companies are different. They don’t employ people out of love or loyalty because companies, by definition, can’t feel those things. Your company employs you because what you do is valuable – at least, valuable enough to justify your salary.

Luna’s article in the Harvard Business Review also warns that in the “family” approach, employers being the “parent” and employees “the children” can have serious consequences in terms of disempowerment:

These dynamics can also leave employees feeling unempowered (the parents usually decide, and the children follow orders) to stand up for themselves and take on work that falls outside of their comfort zone. This allows personalities and pre-determined dynamics to take precedent over what is expected to do their job well.

Like all forms of paternalism the whole notion of “we’re a family” in corporate approaches is rooted in the question of power. It not only establishes the employer or management as parents and workers as children, but declares everyone else to be outside the family. This is one of the reasons why the notion of the company as a family persists today despite its repeated failure and obvious risks. It allows management to resist unions and to encourage workers to refuse to join unions on the basis that: We’re a family and we don’t need these outsiders!

In this regard there is a strong North American influence in management ideology and practice in the Asia-Pacific region today. Unions are seen as hostile third parties that interfere in the relationship between management and employees. In fact, vast financial resources are directed to consultants and law firms whose sole task is described as “union avoidance”. When a major global food company advertised for HR managers in North America it explicitly required “experience in union avoidance”.

The damage to workers and their ability to exercise their internationally recognized human rights is clear. Article 23 (4) of The UN Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to form or join a union to protect their interests. The ILO established this as a fundamental right. There is no qualifier or footnote stating, “except if the employment relationship is like a family!” Yet calling the company or workplace a “family” somehow justifies the negation of those rights.

This also damages companies. Few managers actually understand industrial relations anymore and even fewer practice it. This rapidly disappearing group of experienced industrial relations managers know that good industrial relations are vital to any successful business. And in an era that demands greater sustainability, it is even more important than ever.

Good industrial relations ensure workers have collective representation through their unions and guarantees they can access their rights. It is good industrial relations based on a healthy mutual respect that resolves disputes and strikes and boosts morale and productivity. Workers empowered by their unions can speak out against gender-based violence, sexual harassment and corruption. In this respect higher levels of management will hear what they should (and need) to hear regarding the realities in the workplace. It strengthens corporate governance. Calling the workplace a family merely reinforces the unchecked power of local management and undermines corporate governance. It’s not a family, it’s business.

The factory where we had the dispute in 2011 continued to be mismanaged and eventually closed. The company ignored the collective bargaining rights of our members, violated the international labour conventions they claim to adhere to, and forcibly terminated all of the workers without negotiations. So much for family.