A new wave of supply chain transparency tools could help cut through opaque enforcement of standards by going directly to workers. LaborVoices and Good World Solutions are leveraging the ubiquity of mobile phone ownership to harness workers as witnesses: their tools allow them to report issues anonymously and create real time information for buyers on workers’ rights, conditions and workplace safety.
Good World Solutions’ LaborLink tool has connected with over 400,000 workers in 16 countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Turkey, Mexico and Peru. It collects data on issues such as job satisfaction, unpaid overtime and workplace safety through text message surveys. The tool aims to help companies better identify issues, improve employment and recruitment standards and assess the effectiveness of training programmes.
It has been used to identify unauthorised sub-contracting and exploitative recruitment practices in the apparel industry in India, by polling workers on where they worked and what brands were produced there. It’s also helped expose shortfalls in workplace communication in China where management was not adequately informing workers on avenues for communicating grievances.
Workers expressed a strong preference for a mobile-based channel for reporting grievances when LaborLink polled workers in Bangladesh for the retailer Primark.
LaborVoices is a similar tool aiming to simultaneously empower workers and provide insight to buyers on working conditions and safety issues. It collects feedback from mobile calls to a 24/7 automated hotline in multiple languages. They aim to provide an early warning system, allowing poor working conditions and safety standards to be addressed before they become critical, with a view to preventing a repeat of disasters like the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. The issues reported by garment workers in LaborVoices’ Smartline project (piloted in 2014) included inadequate access to drinking water and cracks in a factory building.
Both tools also aim to provide workers with better information on labour rights and to seek out the best employment opportunities.
Good World Solutions has also developed a Fair Wage Guide tool which produces localized wage analysis for 150 countries. It allows home-based piece workers, which have little bargaining power, to translate and compare the wages they are paid per piece into an equivalent hourly rate and has been effective in increasing bargaining power and raising incomes.
The number of mobile subscriptions worldwide has grown from fewer than 0.738 billion in 2000 to more than 7 billion today. At least three quarters of the world population now have access to a mobile phone.
The complex web of global actors involved in the production of goods from raw materials to finished products can be dizzying. For consumers and companies seeking to ensure environmental sustainability and uphold labour rights and safety standards in the manufacturing of their products the complexity of global supply chains can make transparency difficult.
Countries may have ostensibly agreed to International Labour Organization Standards and suppliers may sign a code of conduct, but breaches of labour rights and safety standards still occur. Even companies which have invested heavily in ensuring sustainability find themselves unable to prevent serious breaches of labour laws when they look deeper into their supply chains. Conventional auditing processes have been found lacking and subject to criticism for some time. The highly unequal power relations between workers and employers often prevent workers from speaking up and factory managers may sweep abuses and potential troublemakers under the carpet before the auditors arrive.
Can tools like LaborLinks and LaborVoices provide a safety net to catch abuses which may occur between, or are hidden from, auditors? Could they also transform the way companies monitor conditions in their supply chains completely, replacing arduous audits altogether?
In marketing its tool to companies, LaborLink emphasises a win-win: a greater voice and better conditions for workers on the one hand, and on the other, an effective means for companies to avoid shortfalls in labour and safety standards in their supply chains and capture workers’ views and concerns.
Whilst some businesses may not yet recognise the importance of transparency, and prefer to compete on lowest cost, their future license to operate may depend on tackling issues in their supply chain. Involving workers in this way may be key to identifying the solutions.
In what other areas and directions could the increasing connectivity of workers have on working conditions in the majority world?
Chinese workers used mobile internet platforms to organise when striking in record numbers in January of this year. As more workers in emerging economies become better connected, will they find new ways to organise, winning better conditions for themselves – and perhaps for the environments in which they live and on which their work depends?
Image Credit: ILO in Asia and the Pacific/Flickr
GreenBiz, (15th October 2015) ‘9 supply chain tech companies you should know’