You would think, given it’s been two decades since Nike’s very public issues with labor conditions, that it wouldn’t take massive public outcry to get Apple to pay attention to labor issues in their suppliers’ factories. One can only imagine what’s happening at companies of a lesser public profile.
Things have certainly improved in terms of supply chain transparency, and yet, clearly not enough is happening, given the current reality. With the increased scrutiny has come increased gaming of the system by factory owners and companies that turn a blind eye. Factory owners are frequently tipped off in advance of inspections allowing them to sanitize the floor of unsafe labor conditions and underage workers.
A simple solution to all of this is beginning to emerge: The telephone.
LaborVoices is a company that aims to use the most ubiquitous of devices, the telephone, to bring much greater transparency to working conditions throughout the world.
Rather then rely on a hired force of roving inspectors to shed light on working conditions, LaborVoices creates “…a mobile phone platform for workers to review employers.”
Your next question might be “What does the worker need to do?” The company quickly answers when it says, “Workers don’t need to be literate or have any special technology to use the LaborVoices forum. All they need is a phone.”
LaborVoices plans to go much further then being a source of information to brands and social auditors, to which it will sell this continuously updated stream of information. It will empower the workers themselves, giving them the ability to learn in advance about potential employers, recruiters, and the availability of housing and childcare, among other critical factors. Rather than relying on the word of recruiters or the likely biased or incomplete information of friends and family, they’ll now be able to get information on prospective employers directly from current employees.
Interestingly, LaborVoices also intends to profit, indirectly, from the workers as they’ll be serving up audio ads on the forum. From microsavings accounts to relevant public service announcements, this trusted ally could be an ideal vehicle for businesses to reach a vast and upwardly mobile population.
Where it gets really interesting is when LaborVoices provides the resulting data to consumers and activists for free, after an initial embargo while it sells the freshest data to companies. It envisions data being piped directly into popular existing point-of-sale apps like Free2Work and GoodGuide. As it puts it,
We will revolutionize the consumer experience, by providing testimonials from workers directly to consumers’ phones, and allowing consumers to connect directly to workers, closing the supply-chain loop.
Whether this means consumers will literally be able to be in communication with workers or simply that they’ll be able to read testimonials from them, this is a terrific step forward. In today’s social-media-empowered age, such information will quickly find its way broadly into online media feeds and consumers’ inboxes. Given the effectiveness of citizen initiated petitions on Change.org, the speed of action & reaction to information and events via Facebook, Twitter and countless other channels, this data gathered by the humble telephone could have a mighty impact across the world.
Smartly, LaborVoices intends to share data with researchers, serving two functions: researchers get detailed information on worker’s lives, and in the hands of academics, a chance for LaborVoices to improve its service, increasing accuracy, worker participation incentives, and the relevancy to workers’ needs.
Still in its early days, testing the service in India and soon the US as of this writing, LaborVoices looks like a promising tool for improving worker conditions. The only question I have is how to ensure the accuracy of reports, preventing false positive or negative reports from being phoned in, skewing the results.
Readers: What’s your feedback on LaborVoices? Where else are there emerging and effective ways to monitor and improve worker conditions and improve overall company transparency?
Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, global trend tracker, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations about, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media marketing.