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Maeve Galvin of C&A Foundation argues that phone technology could transform conditions in the apparel supply chain if data is public and allows workers to have a voice
The power of technology lies in its ability to connect people and mobilise communities. Today, most garment industry workers have a phone in their hand. In recent years, I’ve been part of work exploring and learning about ways to give them a voice through that technology.
While technology has helped to bring about impressive changes in fields like health, agriculture, and political participation, we still have a lot to do in the garment industry. Identifying how to use technology, and particularly mobile technology, to improve labour conditions has been slow.
I first learned how mobiles could help workers while I was working at the International Labour Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia programme. In 2013, we identified that workers in Cambodia all had mobile phones. With this, we saw an opportunity to reach thousands of workers. But we had to find the right methodology: these were all basic phones and workers didn’t use them to text. We set up an interactive voice response programme called Kamako Chhnoeum, or Outstanding Worker. With minimal marketing, thousands of workers called Kamako Chhnoeum to learn about their rights, safety and personal health. We learned not only that workers had an appetite for information, but that they were willing to spend their very limited free time on a tool when it was designed with them in mind.
Sharing information with workers via mobiles proved valuable, but we knew that this was the tip of the iceberg. What’s truly powerful is if the technology can lead to improvements in areas workers care about. For that, we need the technology to give a voice to worker challenges. It was an exciting prospect, especially given how garment factory workers usually have to wait to be asked about their working conditions during factory audits, or on occasions when they are contacted by outsiders. And even when they are asked about their conditions, audits are not specifically designed to capture worker experiences.
At C&A Foundation we have been partnering with a few organisations in this emerging area. In Turkey, LaborVoices has just completed a six-month project enabling workers to report anonymously about the conditions in their factory.
Using interactive voice response (IVR) technology, their views were collected via toll-free phone lines, and around 3,200 workers – a third of those asked – came forward. Verbal abuse, hygiene and cleanliness, and long working hours were the top issues.
Over the past few years, I’ve spent time with garment workers in their homes and factories in Cambodia. Bangladesh, Vietnam and Myanmar. Whenever I the chance, the one thing I always ask them is: What circumstances make them leave a factory? With a small number of exceptions, the answers consistently fall into the three categories; abusive supervisors, low wages, and difficulties getting leave.
What’s interesting is that the more we hear from workers via technology, the more it becomes apparent that issues are not isolated to specific factories, or even countries, they are in fact systemic to the garment industry across countries. In Bangladesh, we’ve been working with Laborlink, a programme by Good World Solutions,. It (also) uses mobile technology to give workers an anonymous two-way communication channel. There, verbal abuse is also a problem.
This kind of technology gives us a chance to survey broad worker populations, and that tells us a lot about the individual worker experience in different places. And we can then see trends that are systemic to the industry.
Putting information in public domain
While the initial results of using mobile technology is encouraging, just gathering the data isn’t enough. And workers have told us so. They are tired of being interviewed and surveyed and then never hearing about where the information ends up. They want to be at the forefront of the conversation about their industry. A lot of the information in our industry exists in a vacuum. Data almost always is controlled by one party. And we’ve already learned that when a programme only benefits one stakeholder, it doesn’t tend to be as powerful.
Putting the results of the Labor Voices programme into the public domain is an important move. Public disclosure puts pressure on factories, suppliers and retailers to take greater accountability for the people who make their clothes. And this should lead to behaviour change and improve working conditions.
At the same time, workers must not just be asked to contribute data. They must get access to that data, too. Technology can be used to connect and empower workers, so that they can share information with one another, understand and claim their rights, and make better informed choices about where they work.
At C&A Foundation we are working to jumpstart these bold and creative technology programmes that truly engage workers and start to pull away at the cloak of secrecy hanging over our industry. Soon, we hope to see that better and open information, together with better connected working communities, results in real industry transformation.
Maeve Galvin is programme manager for supply chain transformation at C&A Foundation
See our big data and human rights briefing in this month's magazine:
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