In the lead-up to this year’s SB Innovation Open, we’re catching up with some of our favorite paradigm-disrupting startups from past years. This week, we have an update from LaborVoices.
It is easy to discount how our favorite products are made - or rather who makes them and what conditions they endure while making them — until a disaster brings these factors into the limelight, as did last year’s Rana Plaza factory tragedy in Bangladesh or the recent accusations against Samsung regarding health issues in some of its South Korean factories.
SBIO 2013 finalist LaborVoices has set out to prevent such calamities in the future by providing companies previously unheard-of insight into the furthest reaches of their supply chains — by connecting them to the workers themselves. The company aims to reduce incidences of labor rights violations and workplace abuse, by providing worker-sourced information — through mobile technology and in-person surveys — to supply chain managers for intimate insight into the inner workings of their supply chains.
Inspired by his work as an AAAS Science Policy Fellow for the US State Department’s Office of International Labor and Corporate Social Responsibility office, founder and CEO Dr. Kohl Gill set out on a mission to give a voice to those struggling to obtain favorable working conditions within global supply chains. We recently caught up with Gill to find out about LaborVoices’ progress since last year.
CM: How did being a finalist in SBIO/attending the SB conference help LaborVoices?
KG: We had a great opportunity to engage some of the most forward-leaning companies in the industry in apparel, agriculture and electronics, partly from the visibility we gained via Sustainable Brands.
CM: Congratulations on the Echoing Green fellowship! How has that helped you?
KG: Echoing Green is a terrific community of social entrepreneurs and changemakers. They take a hands-on role in connecting us Fellows with resources of all kinds — financial, in-kind, mentorship — that are intentionally designed to take us to the next level, as a company and as individuals.
CM: Describe your product, SmartLine. How does Smartline Aid work?
KG: The SmartLine is an adaptive, cloud-based system that reaches supply chain workers directly through their mobile phones. It collects feedback about working conditions and provides brands with intelligent insight into their supply chain.
The SmartLine Aid is one aspect of our product offering. It is an intelligent alternative to hotlines (a phone service that workers call in to report issues). When a worker calls in, we look into the issue by following up with on-the-ground partners as well as other workers. Then, we prioritize the issue and report it to our client (brands or factory owners). Clients only receive validated issues and have complete context, which they can use to take action. When an issue is resolved, we send them an update. Meanwhile, workers are updated consistently as their issue is processed. The sector simply has not seen this level of customer service and user experience applied to workers and supply chains.
CM: What is the most common grievance that you run across?
KG: Wages! Workers are rarely, if ever, provided clarity on their wages and how they are calculated, and they are often paid late. This leads to a lot of confusion and mistrust. We have come across entire crews of workers that have left their jobs due to these issues. Keep in mind that we work with people that barely make minimum wage — this money is really important to them!
CM: Which region needs the most restructuring to improve working conditions?
KG: It is really hard to do justice to this question, in light of what we see and hear every day. Bangladesh is perhaps the most obvious example given the Rana Plaza tragedy last year, which exposed some serious deficiencies in the way factories are run. I'm sure you are also aware of worker suicides in China. Recently, sporting events have brought into light issues in Russia, Qatar and Brazil. The list goes on, really.
CM: Have you seen companies actively trying to get more involved in improving their supply chains or is it just a slowly growing market?
KG: I first started pursuing this idea over three years ago, and I do believe that more and more companies are beginning to think about improving their supply chain. That said, most companies have been reactive — oftentimes, brands are only interested in putting resources into supply chain monitoring and improvement in the wake of a major tragedy. It doesn’t have to be this way. The same poor management practices that lead to worker abuse also lead to poor quality, missed deadlines and higher production costs. It is important for brands to recognize that improving their supply chain has benefits that go far beyond avoiding disasters.
CM: Last year you joined forces with Walmart. Any new partnerships?
KG: Because of the sensitive nature of some of our projects, I can't say a lot ... but we are very focused on China and India, while strengthening our efforts in Bangladesh
CM: How do you differentiate yourself from competitors? What is LaborVoices' strongest attribute?
KG: Worker relationships. While brands are our customers, supply chain workers are also our users — the most important stakeholder group in our operations! By offering them an anonymous and safe platform to voice their concerns and resolving issues for them, we build lasting relationships. This, in turn, means greater participation and high-quality data, which benefits brands. It’s a virtuous cycle.
CM: What are your biggest challenges? How much opposition do you receive when entering a new environment and suggesting organizational improvements?
KG: The most critical piece of the puzzle is winning over local factory management. It is important to involve them as a key stakeholder so they understand our product's true purpose — better working conditions for everyone. We’re not a “gotcha” system. When we communicate that key message to middle management, they see the benefit of working with us to improve conditions quickly and effectively.
CM: Can you describe an example of where LaborVoices’ services had a significant impact on workers' lives?
KG: During a recent project in Argentina, a lot of workers expressed confusion and dismay over their wages — how much are they supposed to get paid? When do they get paid? Almost all of these workers migrated from distant corners of the country for this job, and were really concerned about not being paid. Workers used the SmartLine in large numbers to voice this concern, and we followed up with a few of them to get a better understanding of the problem. We worked with our client to broadcast information about wages, and sure enough: SmartLine results confirmed that this issue had indeed been resolved. We had instances of a few workers calling in and expressing gratitude that their concerns were heard.
CM: What's next for LaborVoices?
KG: The immediate next step is scale. We want to build out our SmartLine completely into one company's supply chain: giving them full visibility and helping them shoot for global optimization. The great thing about our product is that going from one factory to ten is actually fairly simple.
Our long term goal is dual-fold: help brands and workers choose the best-in-class factories. To get there, we'll need to permeate into entire industries and gain the trust of entire populations of workers as well as brands.
CM: What are you most proud of now?
KG: Our results. With every project, we have established that giving workers a voice benefits everyone involved. And when factory management see our SmartLine in action, they are thunderstruck — in a good way! This is great validation that workers and local management see real value in our product.
CM: What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs?
KG: Seek feedback from customers and users, early and often. You can never have too much of this.