Human resource managers as liaisons between firms and labour

Publication Date07 October 2019
Pages1224-1237
DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1108/ER-11-2017-0281
AuthorMichael O’Donnell,Sue Williamson,Arosha Adikaram,Meraiah Foley
SubjectHr & organizational behaviour,Industrial/labour relations,Employment law
Human resource managers as
liaisons between firms and labour
Michael ODonnell and Sue Williamson
School of Business, University of New South Wales, Canberra, Australia
Arosha Adikaram
University of Colombo, Colombo, Sri Lanka, and
Meraiah Foley
University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia
Abstract
Purpose The purposeof this paper isto explore how human resource(HR) managersin garment factoriesin a
Sri Lankan export processing zone (EPZ) navigated the tension between their role as stewards of employee
welfare and their role to maximise firm productivity in responseto time and production pressures imposed by
international buyers. Relatively little attention has been paid to the role of HR managers as liaisons between firms
and labour.This omissionis significant,given the importanceof human resourcemanagement in the recruitment
and retentionof labour and the role of HRmanagers in organisationalperformance and regulatory compliance.
Design/methodology/approach A qualitative approach was used based on interviews with 18
HR managers, factory managers and other key informants, and 63 factory workers from 12 firms in the
Katunayake EPZ. The interviews and focus groups in English were transcribed and coded into themes
arising from the literature and further developed from the transcripts. Initial codes were analysed to identify
common themes across the data set.
Findings HR managers were acutely aware of the competitive pressures facing the EPZ garment factories.
While examples of company welfarism were evident, HR practices such as incentive payment systems and the
management of employee absences reinforced a workplace environment of long hours, work intensification
and occupational injury.
Originality/value This paper goes some way towards filling the gap in our understanding of the roles
played by HR managers in garment factories in the Global South, raising theoretical debates regarding the
potential for HR managers in developing countries to distance themselves from the negative consequences of
HR practices such as individual and team reward systems.
Keywords Supply chains, Globalization, Human resource management, Garments, Labour standards
Paper type Research paper
Introduction
In the wake of the April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment manufacturing facility in
Bangladesh, which killed 1,129 garment workers and injured a further 2,500 (Reinecke and
Donaghey, 2017), much attention has focused on the ethical and regulatory frameworks
governing retail supply networks at the global and transnational levels (Barrientos, 2013;
Donaghey et al., 2014). However, supply chain pressures also affect employment relations
outcomes at the domestic or institutional levels, such as the ability of unions to organiseand
bargain with employers; the enforceability and effectiveness of minimum labour standards;
and the human resource management (HRM) strategies that supplier firms adopt in response
to pressures exerted by firms at the top of the supply chain (Wright and Kaine, 2015).
A significant body of literature has sought to understand the role of workers within these
supply chains (Barrientos, 2013; Delaney et al., 2015; Rainnie et al., 2011), but relatively less
attention has been paid to the role of human resource (HR) managers as intermediaries
between production workers and factory managers seeking enhanced productivity in
response to the time and cost pressures imposed by international buyers (Ruwanpura and
Wrigley, 2011). Although extant research has incorporated the perspectives of HR managers
(Goger, 2013; Perry et al., 2015), the enactment of HRM and the role of HR managers as
liaisons between firms and labour has not been the primary focus of enquiry. This omission
Employee Relations: The
International Journal
Vol. 41 No. 6, 2019
pp. 1224-1237
© Emerald PublishingLimited
0142-5455
DOI 10.1108/ER-11-2017-0281
Received 25 November 2017
Revised 3 August 2018
16 November 2018
7 February 2019
Accepted 7 February 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
www.emeraldinsight.com/0142-5455.htm
1224
ER
41,6

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