Global Employee Relations Issues

Several issues related to employee relations are often concerns in international situations. Health and safety issues may be of concern to employees overseas, and security has become a very difficult issue in certain areas of the world. The nature of labor unions and labor laws can be an important variable for managers from other countries when dealing with host-country national employees. Finally, maintaining the expatriate employee in an international position given the potential difficulties deserves attention.

Global Health and Safety

Safety and health laws and regulations vary from country to country, ranging from virtually nonexistent to more stringent than in the United States. The importance placed on workplace safety varies among different countries. With more and more expatriates working internationally, especially in some of the less-developed countries, significant health and safety issues are arising. For instance, in many parts of the former Soviet Union, medical facilities are more primitive, treatment is not as available, and pharmaceuticals are less easily obtained. U.S. expatriates traveling to such countries as Turkmenistan and Tajikistan commonly take antibiotics, other medications, and syringes and needles with them in case they need them. Similar practices are recommended for those traveling or working in some African and lesser-developed Asian countries, including China.

Another consideration is provision of emergency evacuation services. For instance, how to evacuate and care for an expatriate employee who sustains internal injuries in a car accident in the Ukraine or Sierra Leone may be a major issue. Many global firms purchase coverage for their international employees from an organization that provides emergency services, such as International SOS, Global Assistance Network, or U.S. Assist. To use such a service, an employer pays a membership fee per employee, and all employee travelers are given emergency contact numbers. If an emergency arises, the emergency services company will dispatch physicians or even transport employees by chartered aircraft. If adequate medical assistance can be obtained locally, the emergency services company maintains a referral list and will make arrangements for the expatriate to receive treatment. Legal counsel in foreign countries, emergency cash for medical expenses, and assistance in retrieving lost documents or having them reissued also are provided by emergency services firms.

International Security and Terrorism

As more U.S. firms operate internationally, the threat of terrorist actions against those firms and the employees working for them increases. U.S. citizens are especially vulnerable to extortions, kidnapping, bombing, physical harassment, and other terrorist activities. In a three-month period in a recent year, several hundred terrorist acts were aimed at businesses and businesspeople. Many of these acts targeted company facilities and offices. Nevertheless, individual employees and their families living abroad must constantly be aware of security issues. Countries vary in the extent to which they are likely to see violence at the workplace. Figure shows the share of workers reporting violence on the job in different countries.

It should be noted, of course, that not all violence occurs at work. Kidnapping, murder, home invasion, robberies, and car-jackings are relatively frequent in some places. People who appear affluent are targets, and in some countries a person can appear ostentatiously wealthy simply by wearing eyeglasses. Many firms provide bodyguards who escort executives everywhere. Different routes of travel are used, so that “normal” patterns of movement are difficult for terrorists to identify. Family members of employees also receive training in security. Children are told to avoid wearing sweatshirts with U.S. logos and to be discreet when meeting friends.

In a number of countries schools for children of U.S. expatriates have instituted tight security measures, including sign-in procedures for visitors, guards for the grounds, and improved security fences and surveillance equipment. Firms themselves are taking other actions. For example, one U.S. firm removed its large signs from facilities in a Latin American country. Removal of signs identifying offices and facilities reduces the visibility of the firm and thus reduces its potential as a target for terrorist acts. Many international firms screen entry by all employees, and many use metal detectors to scan all packages, briefcases, and other items. Physical barriers, such as iron security fences, concrete barricades, bulletproof glass, and electronic surveillance devices, are common in offices.

Global Labor-Management Relations

The strength and nature of unions different from country to country. In some countries, unions either do not exist at all or are relatively weak. Such is the case in China and a number of African countries. In other countries, unions are extremely strong and are closely tied to political parties.48 This is the case in some European countries. In still other countries, such as the United States and Great Britain, unions have declined in influence and membership during the last decade.

Some countries require that firms have union or worker representatives on their boards of directors. This practice is very common in European countries, where it is called co-determination. But signs of change in Europe are beginning to emerge.50 Predictions are that in the next decade unions will have less power in Europe as competition worldwide forces change.51 However, union militancy is increasing in some lesser-developed countries, such as Brazil, Mexico, Poland, and Romania.

Differences from country to country in how collective bargaining occurs also are quite noticeable. In the United States, local unions bargain with individual employers to set wages and working conditions. In Australia, unions argue their cases before arbitration tribunals. In Scandinavia, national agreements with associations of employers are the norm. In France and Germany, industry-wide or region-wide agreements are common. In Japan, local unions do the bargaining but combine at some point to determine national wage patterns. In spite of these differences, unions appear to have somewhat similar effects internationally in most situations regarding employment and provision of benefits.

Maintaining the Expatriate Employee

Problems associated with expatriate assignments have been noted throughout the chapter. Some interesting research on expatriates’ psychological withdrawal from international assignments is reflected in the HR Perspective. Those problems are well-documented but not always dealt with very well by employers who need to send employees overseas. Yet, international strategies are threatened with ineffectiveness when those who are offered such international assignments refuse them or take them unwillingly.

Whether the problem is with the family, salaries, loss of visibility in the company, living conditions, danger, or whatever, the loss of good employees with international experience is a big issue for some organizations. For example, one executive noted that after spending three years of hard work overseas—generating millions of dollars in profit for the company—when it was time to come home, suddenly his supervisors were saying, “Where will we send him?” “What will he do?” “What will we pay him?” “Why won’t he stay overseas?” Another notes that when his three years were over and he needed to come back to the United States because of his children’s ages, his superiors quickly turned the discussion toward another three years abroad. In the end he became discouraged and gave up 18 years with the company to move to another firm in the United States. Behind the hype and the horror stories, there is one valid generalization about foreign assignments: They can pay professional and personal dividends, but they carry some real risks. The organizations that help their expatriates deal with the risks—and choose the right people for those very challenging assignments—ultimately share in the benefits with their successful employees.

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