It’s been three years since the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, which claimed the lives of 1,134 garment workers. Despite the fact that clothing from over a dozen well-known international brands was found in the rubble, it took weeks for some companies to figure out that they even had contracts there.
The problem is that many companies don’t really know where their clothes are being made. Fashion supply chains are typically long and very complex. Some brands may work with thousands of factories at any given time, making it difficult to monitor or control working conditions throughout the supply chain.
This presents a big challenge for not only the brands themselves, but also the people working in the supply chain who become invisible in the process. It’s impossible for companies to make sure human rights are respected and that environmental practices are sound without knowing where their products are made, who is making them and under what conditions.
LaborVoices is one company that’s making sure these garment workers are seen and heard. “We’re all about supply chain transparency through crowdsourced worker data,” explained Ayush Khanna, the company’s director of product and marketing. “We collect data directly from workers about their working conditions, and then we analyze the data and present it to brands, the factory and other stakeholders.”
LaborVoices provides global brands and their supply chains an early warning system based on direct feedback from workers, by polling them directly through their mobile phones. Khanna describes it as a “glass door” between workers and brands.
“There is a global need for transparency in the supply chain,” he told TriplePundit. “Many brands have multiple factories. It’s extremely difficult to track what’s happening on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes, these brands are relying on two-year-old audit reports. This information is limited, irrelevant and not up to date.”
Khanna described the audit reports as a high-resolution photo while LaborVoices offers a low-resolution video that’s streamed in real time. “It exposes real information about how workers are being treated in the factory and monitors progress over time. It allows brands to know about issues such as cleanliness, abuse or child labor, long before the next audit.”
This work is done in multiple ways. First, LaborVoices builds relationships with workers by either reaching out to them directly or working alongside the factory or brand. They are asked a series of questions in seven categories which best reflect the issues that most brands care about. Topics include things like child labor, fire safety and sexual harassment. The factories are then rated based on these responses.
The LaborVoices’ “SmartLine” tech is also used to disseminate information. In addition to taking surveys, workers are given information about their rights, from legally-mandated minimum wages to maternity leave. Additionally, they are offered small financial incentives for taking the surveys and referring other workers in an effort to keep them engaged.
All worker identities are kept anonymous. LaborVoices uses their phone numbers to build profiles, but this information is never shared with the brands or factory owners to ensure that workers are protected. The team prides itself on engaging workers by earning their trust, distinguishing themselves from other industry services, guaranteeing anonymity and reminding them that it’s in their best interest to report concerns.
“LaborVoices is a long-term solution to a global labor problem," Khanna said. "The more that brands can tie these results to a dollar value, the more successful it will be. Making simple investments like keeping toilets and eating areas clean can have a significant impact on how workers rate a factory." It also boosts morale and productivity.
The company is now working to develop a new platform called Symphony, which will give more brands access to the data the company has collected at a lower price point. “This is what can get us to the goal of creating large-scale impact so that we can affect change,” Khanna explained.
“The problems that factory workers face are substantial and have been going on for years,” said Dr. Mark Anner, a professor in the Labor and Employment Relations department of Penn State University. “They’re dealing with verbal abuse, sexual harassment, low wages, poor working conditions, all things that can be fixed. The industry generates more than enough money to allow people to work with dignity.”
He believes that transparency plays an essential role in making these changes happen and that workers need to be a part of it. “Workers have to be able to speak up to address these issues,” Anner told TriplePundit. “There has to be worker representation. They need to be empowered and protected.”
The liberalization of trade in apparel, initiated by the World Trade Organization in the '90s, allowed brands to quickly shop the globe to source products. “China comes in and becomes a huge game-changer,” Anner explained. “Now, if you can’t find a factory that meets your price point, you can go elsewhere.”
This, in combination with the emergence of fast fashion and shorter “micro seasons” forced factories to produce large quantities of clothing in shorter periods of time. Factory owners then have to cut corners and force workers to work incredibly long hours in harsh conditions, for extremely low wages.
IndustriALL is an organization that addresses this issue by working with major clothing brands in a process known as ACT (action, collaboration, transformation) to create a system that increases wages in a sustainable and enforceable way. By linking national, industry-level collective bargaining between unions and employers to the purchasing practices of brands, the ACT process creates a framework for genuine supply chain industrial relations.
“It’s not enough for workers to speak up about living wages,” Anner said. “Factory owners have to go up the chain and work directly with the brands." IndustriALL is facilitating these discussions. The organization works with buyers, factories, workers and their unions to address issues around living wages.
Rana Plaza is one massive example of how a lack of transparency costs lives. Fashion is one of the largest industries in the world with many moving parts. It can be difficult to navigate, especially for those who are on the ground doing the work. The good news is that a number of truly innovative businesses, organizations and movements are not only amplifying the voices of these workers, but are also on a mission to affect real, sustainable change.
Image credit: Flickr/ILO in Asia and the Pacific
Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.