Thomas Shomaker, Sybile Penhirin, Sean Ryon

With Just a Cellphone, Factory Workers Are Being Heard

Good World Solutions’s mobile technology allows companies — and consumers — to know what life is like for the thousands of factory workers behind the scenes.

Heather Franzese, the co-founder and executive director of Good World Solutions, has toured hundreds of factories around the world since the time she first started working in the apparel industry a decade ago. “I have seen workers being exposed to toxic chemicals, workers being demeaned and not paid on time,” she says.

The poor working conditions in the factories Franzese visited were impossible to ignore in person. The flipside, of course, is that they’re all too easy to overlook from a distance. “Why do I get to see these conditions,” Franzese started to wonder, “and they’re invisible to the average consumer?” There wa­s something else Franzese began to notice too: more and more of the workers on production lines had cellphones. She started to think that, “there must be a way that we can use this technology to bridge this gap and actually establish two-way communication in real time,” she says.

That idea for two-way communication became Good World Solutions, a Bay Area nonprofit that uses widely available technology to amplify workers’ voices and address their concerns. The organization’s Laborlink platform lets workers take anonymous surveys about their working conditions using their cellphones. Companies and factories can then take action to respond to issues of concern, and ‘push’ information and communication back to workers through their cell phones.

The Laborlink platform launched in 2010 with just 100 workers in Peru. Today, it’s reached over 750,000 workers in 16 countries, collecting 4 million data points along the way. Through Laborlink, Good World Solutions aims to reach 1 million workers by 2018. Cisco has invested in Laborlink since the start and has supported the platform throughout its efforts to become financially sustainable. Cisco has also used Laborlink with its own supply chain.

The platform is highly adaptable. “We can survey workers directly in any language in any country, and all they have to have is a simple feature phone,” Franzese says. “They don’t have to have a smartphone. They don’t even have to be literate.” But the platform can also accommodate the technologies workers are most familiar with. For instance in China, where most workers do own smartphones, surveys are conducted over the popular messaging app WeChat. “We use a number of different technologies, whatever makes sense for the purpose and the local context,” says Franzese.

In the past, companies that wanted visibility of their supply chain relied solely on social audits. Inspectors would visit a factory for a day or two, observe the conditions, and conduct in-person interviews with selected workers. “The information that comes out of those worker interviews is often incomplete or unreliable,” says Franzese. Employees interviewed in front of their colleagues or supervisors may not feel comfortable making complaints. Plus, “it’s well known that in a lot of countries workers are coached on how to answer these questions,” she says.

Because it’s anonymous, Laborlink identifies problems that traditional audits don’t. At one factory where both an audit and a mobile survey were conducted, for example, 41 percent of those surveyed reported verbal harassment on the job. But not a single worker interviewed during the audit said anything about harassment. “What we’re offering is a way to surface more reliable information about sensitive issues,” Franzese says.

The potential benefits for workers are obvious. Beyond the mobile two-way communication, digitizing this type of data means it can be easily analyzed, and insights can be put into action. “Our purpose is to use this data to create safe and respectful workplaces,” says Franzese. Risk-based data visualization and predictive analytics can help identify the reasons for high turnover, bring to light information about critical safety issues, compare different factories, countries or regions, get a 360-degree view of the factory floor by surveying both factory workers and management and measure whether or not conditions are improving over time. For example, Franzese says, if a large number of workers claim they don’t feel safe, a company can dig into the responses and see if they differ by gender or by length of service, helping them determine the best way to handle the problem. And when those surveys do uncover problems, Good World Solutions has partners who can step in with education and training. If workers don’t understand how their pay is calculated, educational materials can be pushed out to their mobile phones. If the issue is more serious, a longer-term change may be implemented.

The system benefits factories and their managers as well. Employee turnover has been increasing in China over the past few years, says Deepak Telang, general manager of Mattel’s factory in Foshan, China. “That’s why I think it’s important for us to engage employees,” he says. “Connected, well-trained employees always give you the best results in terms of quality and productivity.”

Global brands are also starting to see the advantages of uncovering this kind of information about their supply chains, Franzese says. “Aligning business with worker needs is a huge potential win-win for business,” she says, adding that Accenture has calculated that severe supply-chain disruptions can cause a 7 percent drop in stock prices. Plus, companies are now very aware of the reputational risk they face from poor working conditions becoming widely known. “Employees have the best suggestions for how to improve. We just need to surface those voices,” she says.

Ultimately, consumers want ethical products they can feel good about buying, says Franzese. “The average consumer does not want to be associated with or know that the clothes that they’re wearing or the phone that they love was made in sweatshop conditions,” she says. “There’s obviously interest by consumers; the question is just how to tell that story in a way that consumers can understand.”

The very first company that Good World Solutions ever worked with, Indigenous Designs, a sweater company based in Peru, now puts QR codes on its price tags. Customers can scan the codes and immediately see what the workers who made the sweater have to say about their lives, their work and their hopes for the future. Lifting up factory workers’ voices, says Franzese, “is an opportunity for companies to do more to engage consumers on these issues.”

This article was produced in partnership with Cisco, which believes everyone has the potential to become a global problem solver — to innovate as a technologist, think as an entrepreneur and act as a social change agent.