The Start-up Giving Factory Workers a Voice
Labor rights around the world are in a sorry state. So sorry, in fact, that last week, when China Labor Watch released a damning account of conditions inside the Pegatron factory where some Apple products are manufactured, the tech community all but ignored the labor issues listed. Instead, they breathlessly buzzed about the low-priced, plastic iPhone revealed in the report.
The fact is, the pitiful working conditions in many of the world's factories seem to be such an insurmountable problem that when news of this sort breaks, it's typically met with a collective shrug or considered old news in the developed world. It seems to take a total catastrophe like the factory collapse that left 1,132 dead in Bangladesh this April to get people's attention.
Kohl Gill is one entrepreneur who's not looking away. As founder and CEO of LaborVoices, a six employee company based in Sunnyvale, California, he wants to change factories from the inside out by arming workers with information and an anonymous way to report abuses. LaborVoices has created what Gill refers to as a "smartline," a number workers can call to get access to information about their rights as well as services that can assist them with things like transportation and childcare. LaborVoices also conducts automated surveys with the callers, asking them questions about the how they're being treated and compensated and gives them the opportunity to report any urgent issues. Each caller is given an anonymous profile so LaborVoices can track these workers over time.
For this trove of data, major brands are willing to pay LaborVoices handsomely. This May, the start-up announced its first corporate partnership: a $600,000 deal to work with Walmart on cleaning up 279 of its factories in Bangladesh.
"These companies care about being able to provide work, and decent work, to everyone in their supply chain. They just haven't had access to real-time metrics to measure social responsibility," Gill says. "We think having a real-time view of the supply chain will give brands more control over whether those rights are being respected."
When Gill was growing up, his own mother, who had come to the United States from India as a teenager, worked at a local garment factory in Sherman, Mississippi. As outsourcing became more common, however, the factory eventually shut down. "We began shifting our jobs overseas, but not our working conditions," Gill says. "It got me thinking that if we're going to outsource jobs, we need to also ship over our labor and environmental standards."
In 2008, he began working in the State Department as an international labor affairs and corporate social responsibility officer. It was in that position that he traveled to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to ensure both countries were upholding international labor rights provisions. Though the factories, themselves, had been cleaned up for his arrival, Gill says he heard story after story of employees who had spoken up about labor abuses and been subsequently blacklisted.
"They essentially couldn't get a job anywhere because all of the factories were sharing that list of workers," he says. "I thought, if employers are sharing information on workers, shouldn't the opposite be possible as well? At least we could try to make it a level playing field."
It wasn't until 2010, when Gill's State Department fellowship ended, that he returned to the Bay Area, and thanks to the encouragement of some friends, decided to launch LaborVoices.
How It Works
In order to engender trust with workers, LaborVoices partners with non-governmental organizations on the ground to spread the word about the service. The company also informs the factory managers, themselves, that they are being monitored.
"The last thing we want is to surprise them," Gill says. "We want them to know we're listening."
Workers can then call in to the automated line either to get assistance or report an abuse. Customers like Walmart get feedback on all of their factories, compare their conditions, and use that information as a bargaining chip to improve them if necessary.
"The brands can get suppliers to change their practices with the understanding that they could always shift their business to another supplier," Gill says. "The flip side is workers can drive each other to the best in class employers and away from the worst, thereby providing two incentives for employers to improve conditions."
Though Gill says it's too early to disclose the number of calls LaborVoices has received, in pilot programs, he says the company has gotten reports of everything from verbal abuse to an infant death in a Bangalore factory (Fair Labor Association reported the latter took place in a factory manufacturing Gap clothes).
Gill's cause is undoubtedly noble and has earned him recognition as a 2013 Echoing Green fellow for civil and human rights innovation. Still, LaborVoices runs the risk of being a victim of its own success. Though Gill espouses the start-up's commitment to anonymity, it is possible that some factory owners could punish workers en masse for negative feedback. While Gill acknowledges this as a risk, he hopes that maintaining a long-term relationship with workers will encourage them to report any employer retribution, as well. Of course, gaining that trust in the first place will be equally tricky.
Still, Gill says, no amount of surveillance cameras or inspections could ever be as effective as giving workers, themselves, a platform to share their stories. "You can never have an inspector everywhere all the time," he says. "If you really want to understand what's going on inside a factory, you need to have an empowered work force. Then they can stand up for themselves rather than having a huge multinational attempt to do it for them."
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