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Child Labor, Unfair Wages and Worker Abuse: Old Problems Demand A New Solution

By: Kohl Gill

This past July, Samsung found out that one of its Chinese suppliers had employed five children through a subcontractor. Samsung suspended business with that supplier quickly, but weeks later quietly reinstated the supplier with a lower volume production. Such a disruption can cost a business millions in lost productivity — not to mention the resources, time and money spent in reputation management to distance your multinational’s brand image from child labor. No one wants to buy a phone made by children.

Every week a news story breaks on labor rights violations domestically and internationally. A multinational brand, a supplier or both are called out for poor working conditions, child labor or health and safety issues Child Labor Map 2014within factories and farms around the world. These are just some of the challenges top of mind for brands whose profits are connected to production of manufactured goods made in developing countries.

Consumers have shocking amounts of information at their fingertips and want to feel good about the purchases they make, yet it can be hard for them to sift through so much data quickly and responsibly. With millions of purchases made daily, the burden to adequately research and vet each product and company is just too high for individual consumers. Brands and suppliers want to avoid disruptions and increase production efficiency. Brands also want to stay out of the headlines for negative worker-related incidents — such as the now infamous Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh.

Now, talk of “sweatshops” has moved beyond apparel. Every sector has a worker-related issue they are trying to resolve—often using antiquated systems of audits and hotlines. These systems are useful, but they’re limited in scope and results they generate. The continued reports of labor scandals—often in facilities “covered” by audits and hotlines—are evidence that this is another area that needs serious disruption and innovation.

When we started LaborVoices four years ago, we saw (already available) mobile technology in each worker’s hand as a bridge to increased visibility into global supply chains. Engaged and informed workers, asked the right questions, are the single best way to detect and prevent these issues. That is why I founded and designed LaborVoices to provide global brands and their supply chains what has been missing: an early warning system based on direct feedback from workers, by repeatedly polling workers through their mobile phones. We help our customers obtain strong safety standards and decent working conditions, empowering workers through their own voices. Long-term worker relations mean:

  • Fewer supply chain disruptions
  • Increased worker productivity
  • Increased worker satisfaction and safety, resulting in increased worker retention
  • Improved brand image and reputation (due to decreased incidents – staying out of headlines)
  • Radically increased visibility — an early warning system, with up to 10x more visibility than an audit

We have to move away from snapshots-in-time (one-off mobile surveys, annual audits or hotlines) and toward the constantly streaming high-definition video that long-term worker relationships can provide. These relationships are the key to understanding the realities driving workers’ lives, health, safety and decision-making. That understanding is critical for rooting out human trafficking, helping us to understand how workers are indebted to recruiters or why workers quit within three months at certain factories. Clearing out these issues is the lowest-hanging fruit to increasing worker productivity.

We believe that labor transparency can enable better business – both in terms of improving the bottom line and increasing social good. When workers can make informed choices about employment opportunities,they can choose dignified work. When factory owners, suppliers, and brands can survey workers on an ongoing basis, they can develop trusted long-term relationships with workers and get the best talent for their manufacturing needs.

LaborVoicesUsing existing mobile technology to build out worker profiles creates long-term relationships with workers and is the most effective way to start chipping away at the crux of this supply chain problem. For example, we are working with an agricultural customer in Argentina to retain workers during a short harvest cycle when every day of production is critical to their business (overview and preliminary results available here).

As Bay Area residents, we are some of the most conscious and well-informed consumers in the developed world. However, it’s easy to forget how products are made, who touched them before they showed up on shelves at local stores and how we can continue making conscious choices about our consumption that will help to increase the need for greater transparency within the world’s supply chains.

These problems exist all across the world, and their seriousness has grown over time. What might be surprising for many Bay Area locals though, is the fact that these issues exist in the tech capital of the world. There are companies in our own backyard that are being dragged to court in connection with labor law violations towards domestic employees. Just look at LinkedIn or Apple’s class-action lawsuits surrounding wage-related issues.

From the food you eat to the clothes you wear and the smartphone you are probably reading this on, there is a worker in the developing world that had a hand in the making of it. It is in our best interest to pay attention, demand more transparency and make informed choices for greater social good.

What would you like to know about how your stuff was made? How else can we use mobile-based technology as a solution to this challenge?

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Kohl Gill is the CEO and Founder of LaborVoices, Inc, which he founded in 2010. A physicist-turned-entrepreneur, Kohl applies a background in diplomacy and his passion for transparency to promote fact-based supply chain decision-making. You can reach the LaborVoices team at contact [at] laborvoices.com and read more about our work here.

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