By Candice D McLeod
Each 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 two articles on an SBIO semi-finalists. Meet semi-finalist LaborVoices.
LaborVoices is utilizing mobile technology to solve human rights issues within global supply chains.
Founder, Dr. Kohl Gill, was inspired to create LaborVoices while on a trade and labor delegation to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as part of the State Department’s Labor Rights and CSR office.
“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 toward the best employers.”
With a PhD in semiconductor physics, Dr. Gill decided to combine his technical academic background with his experience working with supply chains and grassroots labor organizations to develop LaborVoices. 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 stakeholders so that “brands find and reward the best-in-class suppliers.” This, in turn, would force suppliers 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 into a team of 10 – 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 by speaking out against unfair 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,” says Gill.
To encourage workers to use LaborVoices, Gill and his team work with local nonprofits 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 – Walmart.
LaborVoices is currently working with Walmart to use the product to improve the factory safety for 279 suppliers within the conglomerates’s Bangladeshi supply chain. This is certainly a timely partnership, given the recent tragedy with Rana Plaza factory and Walmart’s overall commitment to sustainability.
Gill says, “With nearly 1 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.”
So what’s next for LaborVoices? Gill says, “We’re aiming to be a trusted source of information for workers, supply chain executives and other stakeholders, worldwide. 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 toward our global, local, long-term approach, and we’re proud of that.”
Visit LaborVoices to learn more about their innovative mobile platform. You can also meet founder Dr. Kohl Gill at the Sustainable Brands Solution Expo at SB’13. Enter the discount NW3pSB13 for free entry.
Candice D. McLeod is the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open Co-Coordinator. She received a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies, concentrating in Energy Management & Policy, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. Connect with her on Twitter @candicedmcleod.