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Fast Company: Can Mobile Phones Prevent More Factory Deaths?
01/09/2013 - 3:20 PM

Labor Link--a service that lets companies anonymously survey factory workers at their suppliers--hopes to make working conditions in the developing world more transparent

Six billion people--many of them in developing countries--have mobile phones. They’re already used for such diverse purposes as tracking disease and transferring money.Labor Link, an initiative from Good World Solutions (a nonprofit subsidiary of Fair Trade USA), is working to make mobile phones an integral tool in improving factory conditions.

For decades, the garment industry has tried to monitor health and safety violations in its factories to stave off PR disasters like those plaguing Nike. And for what? In 2012, a garment factory fire in Pakistan killed 264 workers, a fire in a factory supplying items for Tommy Hilfiger killed 29 people, and a fire at a Bangladeshi supplier for Sears and Walmart killed 112 people. That’s just what made headlines.

A big part of the problem is that factory auditing often doesn’t work. Factories will hide unsafe conditions and coach employees on what to say, rendering the whole process useless. In the end, brands have little idea of what actually goes on with their suppliers. Heather Franzese, the Director of Good World Solutions, observed the issues with auditing firsthand during her time in the apparel industry. "Companies were spending billions of dollars to try to improve conditions in supply chains for environmental and social issues, but they don’t have a direct connection to the workers and the farmers that are thousands of miles away," she says.

In 2010, Good World Solutions piloted Labor Link, an initiative that pushes short surveys to factory workers via mobile phones, with a group of people making artisan sweaters in Peru. Now Labor Link is working with over 10 organizations (including Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, Social Accountability International, and Fair Trade USA) along with 15,000 workers and farmers in multiple countries.

When working with an organization, Labor Link first identifies the strategic purpose of sending out questions and creates a 10- to 12-question survey about working conditions, job satisfaction, and other relevant factors. Labor Link doesn’t send the questions via SMS; instead, workers use a voice-based platform that asks the survey questions in their local language. The initiative hands out instruction cards to workers, who place a missed call to the Labor Link number and get a free call-back. All data is aggregated on Labor Link’s servers, analyzed, and made available to partners.

Organizations are using Labor Link for a variety of purposes. Eileen Fisher used the service to identify a community need for housing at one of its factories in India. Patagonia has used it to check on Indian factory working conditions at the raw material level. And in Uganda, coffee farmers will use Labor Link to assist with Fair Trade certification and then track the impact of that intervention.

Labor Link generally partners with both brands and suppliers to create effective surveys. But sometimes, factories push back. "We have one in particular that dug in their heels and didn’t want to do it. In that case, we can do surveys in surrounding communities," says Franzese. And if a factory doesn’t want to participate, that’s a signal to brands that it might be hiding something.

For particularly sensitive questions, Labor Link will ask questions directly of the local community, bypassing factories entirely. As part of a partnership with auditing companyLevel Works, for example, the service was used in Southern India to find out if workers were receiving legally mandated health insurance and benefits. More than 80% of respondents weren’t getting insurance.

In certain cases, companies have opted to show their Labor Link results to consumers. Indigenous Designs, a small Fair Trade clothing company, put QR codes on Fall 2012 items that link to information about its artisans as well as Labor Link data. It helps that Indigenous Designs had positive results to share; 89% of workers surveyed said their lives improved since joining Indigenous. But Franzese believes sharing Labor Link data could be a stepping stone for companies to increase transparency. At the very least, it’s a tool that lets brands communicate with their suppliers’ employees in a whole new way.