A new phone service establishes constant dialogue with factory workers, in an effort to improve conditions

The collapse in April of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed more than 1,100 people, mainly garment workers who were at their stitching machines on the upper levels of the building. It was the worst ever industrial accident to hit the clothing sector, and a tragedy for the Bangladeshi families.

The accident showed the limits of supply chain assurance by western brands. Multinationals have been outsourcing to Asia since the 1980s and have put in place complex monitoring and auditing systems, but if anything supply chain scandals are getting worse. The Rana Plaza collapse followed a series of factory fires in Bangladesh in which hundreds died. Each case has been accompanied by reports of safety violations and workers threatened if they raise concerns.

Supply chain monitoring by the big brands is arguably limited by its reliance on checking, for example through audits. These provide a snapshot, but audits might be infrequent, involve discussions with factory owners and managers rather than workers, and can fail to reveal hidden problems.

A Silicon Valley start-up believes it might have at least a partial answer to this weakness. Kohl Gill, president and chief executive of LaborVoices, says brands’ supply chain monitoring strategies should be reinforced by “supply chain observation” – a constant flow of information that can help brands to spot and prevent emerging problems.

Informant network

LaborVoices has established what amounts to a network of informants inside factories. It encourages workers to call a number and talk about their conditions. Gill formerly worked for the US State Department, and says the idea came to him on a trip to Sri Lanka. “I realised that all these workers have mobile phones and I thought there’s got to be a way we can connect workers to each other to help them avoid being abused, and by the way we might be able to pull some useful information from workers for supply chain managers as well,” he says.

Gill stresses that LaborVoices does not run a hotline that workers will turn to only when problems arise. “It’s really about getting a worker to make a regular phone call to a number and interact with our voice system to deliver some information to us, and we can establish a relationship and come back to that worker later on, confirm that information, check it with them periodically,” he says. “The key issue is that we are gathering important information that is not necessarily urgent. You don’t get any preventative value from urgent information.”

Neither is the system simply a vehicle for complaints. “We’ve gotten responses from workers in terms of everything from significant and dire issues, to minor nuisances and even people saying ‘we don’t have any problems, but when we do I will call you and let you know’,” Gill says.

There is a two-way aspect to the system. LaborVoices collects input from workers, collates it and provides valuable intelligence to brands, but it also offers information on workers’ rights. This can be useful to workers even while they are on shift. “In some cases they really like to hear about their rights at work because often they don’t have that at their fingertips, and they’re very interested to be browsing their rights on the factory floor,” Gill notes. “We totally did not expect that – to be using our system during the work day, but some workers like to do that.”

Wal-Mart weighs in

LaborVoices started up in 2010 and revenues were less than $100,000 in 2012, but an increase to $500,000 is expected in 2013. Gill believes the model can be expanded across many markets; the for-profit set-up is “about access to capital so we can scale this”.

LaborVoices gained its first big boost in early 2013, with an agreement to provide factory-floor intelligence to Wal-Mart. This is particularly relevant in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse. Wal-Mart, which has been reported as a Rana Plaza client, says it will complete a review of 279 suppliers in Bangladesh. The information from LaborVoices will be combined with a programme of inspections, Wal-Mart says. The retail behemoth noted that LaborVoices intelligence was proactive “grassroots level outreach” and would offer “new insights for ensuring the safety of and empowering factory workers”.

Gill says the Wal-Mart deal “is really a game-changer for our company”. It will enable LaborVoices to entrench its network and “establish us in Bangladesh for years to come”.

LaborVoices already has a network in south India, in particular around Bangalore. Its phone line is available in the south Indian Kannada and Tamil languages, and in Bengali. It works with local partners so that workers are aware of the phone line. It also operates in the US in English and in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines. “In the US, we’re working with the Pilipino [sic] Workers’ Centre in Los Angeles,” Gill says. “In the US we found that the real connection for us has been with labour organisations rather than in supply chains. We’ve been working with labour organisations in the US to improve their communication with their members.”

Quality control

LaborVoices must of course negotiate a number of potential pitfalls to establish its networks as sources of credible information. “Quality is very important to us,” Gill says. “The consumers of our information are the supply chain managers and also local management and the workers themselves. We triangulate the information that we get using other information sources, previous inspections and audit reports, information from local civil society, information from the local employer. Also we confirm [using] information from other workers at the same facility.”

Use of the LaborVoices system could also potentially result in a risk for workers if factory owners do not approve. “That’s entirely possible and something that we think about a lot. First, our system is designed so that workers can use it in their off hours. They can use the system even if they’re not using their own phone; they can use somebody else’s phone to interact with us,” Gill says.

But LaborVoices does not exclude factory owners and managers. “We try to introduce ourselves to the employers so that they know what is going on, they know that at the end of the day this is about helping them improve their conditions. They will see a digest of this information, they will see how they are benchmarked against their competitors, and this is a support for them,” Gill says.

He adds: “We can always ask workers if they are being intimidated; that is a very easy thing for us to measure. So it’s not in [factory owners’] interest to try to intimidate workers and prevent them using the system.”

The use of intelligence from LaborVoices does not necessarily involve revelations about major dramas. Rather, it can uncover persistent issues that cause underlying problems for workers. Gill cites the case of garment workers in Bangalore who lost their transportation to work. “They were being provided a shuttle to work, now they weren’t and this was a severe issue for them. And this was an issue nobody had heard about other than the workers.”

Such problems demonstrate the limits of current models of supply chain monitoring and auditing, Gill says. “It was a pretty big issue for [the workers], and it shows the value of us being able to get in touch directly with workers rather than going through intermediary organisations.”

LaborVoices: fast facts

  • Founded in 2010 by Kohl Gill, a doctor of physics who previously worked for the US State Department.
  • Expected revenues of $500,000 in 2013.
  • Three full-time and eight part-time employees.
  • First major success: deal done with Wal-Mart in early 2013 to provide intelligence on suppliers in Bangladesh.
human resources  Stephen Gardner  Sustainability commercialised  Sustainable Strategy 

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