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LaborVoices Using Worker Feedback To Paint More Accurate Pictures of Supplier Practices

Image credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

In the final week leading up to the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open (SBIO) finals on June 5th, where the runner-up will be decided via live online public vote, we will feature daily articles introducing our semi-finalists. Today, meet LaborVoices.

As an AAAS Science Policy Fellow for the U.S State Department’s Office of International Labor and Corporate Social Responsibility office, Dr. Kohl Gill was inspired to found LaborVoices while on a trade and labor delegation to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

“I noticed that most workers had mobile phones, but none of them were using them to avoid abusive labor practices,” says Gill. “I thought that there ought to be a way to connect workers with each other, to allow them to report their working conditions, and drive other workers to the best employers.”

With a PhD in quantum computing and semiconductor physics, Gill decided to combine his technical academic background with his experience with supply chains and grassroots labor organizations to develop LaborVoices.

LaborVoices utilizes mobile technology to solve human rights issues within global supply chains. The product aggregates worker-sourced information across suppliers and sends the feedback to brands, as well as to other workers. The objective is to provide market transparency to all so that “brands find and reward the best-in-class suppliers” and force laggards to improve working conditions in their factories.

“Aggregating worker-sourced information across suppliers for supply chain managers seemed like a natural benefit of this approach, considering the issues I'd already heard from CSR executives,” he says.

The company, which Gill launched by himself in 2010, has grown to have a team of ten — four full-time, and six part-time employees. They have also continued to work on different iterations of their mobile platform, so that the product could gather the relevant data as frequently and efficiently as possible.

Gill says, “We started out testing a question-and-answer model, compiling questions from workers and fielding them to other workers for answers. We have since moved to a more structured approach, generating our own content in partnership with local organizations, coupled with targeted surveys to gather information from workers on a regular basis.”

To ensure accuracy, the LaborVoices team investigates whether issues are genuine by comparing individual reports against other data sources, including “other LaborVoices users in the same facility, accounts from local labor organizations and factory management, and prior inspection reports for the same facility.” Finally, the company also follows up with their LaborVoices users to determine whether the issues that they have raised are being addressed.

In addition to following up with its users, LaborVoices also tries to mitigate potential risks to workers speaking out against labor practices.

“There are always risks for workers who speak out about abusive practices, whether they speak to a labor organizer, a social auditor, their employer, the media or even another worker. Similarly, we know that some employers may be tempted to intimidate, punish or harass LaborVoices users. To mitigate these risks, we take care to work with brands in introducing the LaborVoices model to employers and giving them regular updates on the types of issues found in their facilities, as well as their standing among their peer employers. We let employers know that, if we find that they are pressuring their workers, they will be held accountable,” he says.

To encourage workers to use LaborVoices, Gill and his team work with local non-profits and trade unions to introduce the product and explain the benefits not only to the individual workers but also their broader community.

“We currently provide content to LaborVoices users on their rights at work, as well as local programs and services available to them, such as child care and legal services. We will be experimenting with other incentives for users in the coming months,” says Gill.

Since starting the company, Gill says the biggest challenge has been trying to convince corporate customers of the real benefits of his product. However, his hard work has paid off because he has managed to attract the attention of one of the world’s largest brands  LaborVoices is now working with Walmart on using the product to improve factory safety for the 279 suppliers within the retail giant's Bangladeshi supply chain. This is certainly a timely partnership, given the recent tragedy with the Rana Plaza factory in Bangledesh and Walmart’s overall commitment to sustainability.

LaborVoices hopes this partnership with Walmart demonstrates the power of its product to increase transparency at the local level of the world’s largest, complex supply chains.

“With nearly one million workers in total, this is a huge opportunity to show our scalability and deliver actionable information to our clients, LaborVoices users and other stakeholders. We're aiming to be a trusted source of information for workers, supply chain executives and other stakeholders, worldwide,” says Gill. “We've built our platform in a scalable way, centered around local expertise and long-term relationships with individual workers. More and more firms are gravitating to our global, local, long-term approach, and we're proud of that.”

SB '13 See LaborVoices and our 11 other SBIO finalists present live at the SB Solutions Expo, June 4 at the SB ’13 conference. Enter the discount NW3pSB13 for free entry.

Candice D McLeod is an Energy Associate in facilities management at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), working on energy efficiency and whole systems sustainability, writing on the intersection of business & sustainability for Sustainable Brands. She received a Masters… [Read more about Candice McLeod]


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