Could "Comic Contracts" help protect vulnerable workers?
South African group Indigo Fruit Growers thinks they can.
The company, which produces, packs and supplies ClemenGold mandarins to local and international markets, developed the concept in a bid to make contracts easier to understand for farmworkers.
The concept uses visualization to improve the understanding of contractual terms: the parties are represented by characters and illustrations are used to explain the terms of the contract.
The company said the contracts challenge the "taken-for-granted assumption" that only text can capture the terms of a contract", by using mainly pictures instead of words for a binding agreement.
"It is based on the fact that pictures are easier to understand and easier to remember. The purpose of a Comic Contract is to empower the parties to understand each other, to understand what they expect from each other, and what they are committing to," de Rooy said in a release.
Indigo Fruit Growers said the contracts were especially designed to address the needs of vulnerable employees: employees who either cannot read well or have difficulties understanding the language in which the contract is written.
Whilst the legal system requires that all employees have an employment contract, it assumes that everyone can read proficiently and understand the contractual terms presented to them.
However, the company claimed this was rarely the case in South Africa, especially in sectors employing low-skill workers such as agriculture, mining, manufacturing and domestic work.
"The way in which most contracts are drafted and presented (‘this is standard, sign it or leave it’) does not support a good relationship. Most employees don’t read it, nor would they be able to understand it if they tried," de Rooy said, adding the situation perpetuated the power imbalance between employers and employees.
The release said under these circumstances employees were bound to terms which they don’t understand, couldn't live up to, and could not use to hold their employers accountable, which meant misunderstanding and conflict in the workplace should come as no surprise.
"We are really excited about the transparency this contract brings to our employee relations," said ANB Investments CEO Abs van Rooyen, whose company owns Indigo.
"It creates a more equitable situation, which can only be the start of a more ‘honest’ relationship with our employees. I believe that workers can only commit fully to the content of a contract if they understand what they are signing."
Indigo recently initiated the implementation of the Comic Contracts, which were first presented to 50 fruit pickers who had previously worked for Indigo. Indigo. Following the successful induction of these 50 workers, the contract was presented the next day to a further 163 fruit-pickers.
"The feedback was positive. No picker asked for the old contract," said farm manager Faan Kruger.
"Although everything was new and there were many questions, the process went much faster than with a traditional contract."