Supply Chain Transparency: The Challenge
Enough has been said about the importance of transparent supply chains. Today, it is unacceptable for a global brand to ignore fair labor practices. Yet, labor violations continue to occur around the world daily. For example, most Bangladeshi apparel employees work 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week for extremely low wages. In Cambodia, the ILO reports that one in five women say sexual harassment led to a threatening work environment. Why are these horrible situations allowed to persist?
Bangladesh has become the international example for what happens when labor standards are neglected, as reflected by the infamous Rana Plaza Factory collapse. While this tragic event focused the apparel industry’s attention on better social compliance, leading to the creation of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety that promote stronger adherence to labor regulations, it hasn’t worked. The Guardian reported that almost three years later, all but 10% of the Corrective Action Plans are behind schedule and only two were completed by December 2015.
Brand membership for these organizations can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, not to mention the money they’re spending on their own to improve their suppliers. Clearly, the issue at hand is not brands’ absence of concern for worker well-being, or the lack of effort to find solutions. Rather, the underlying problem is that the current monitoring mechanisms used by brands, such as audits and hotlines, are inefficient means to ensuring that workers are treated fairly.
Social audits only provide a snapshot of what is truly going on in the workplace. Not only do audits miss building safety issues, but their superficiality allows labor abuses such as sexual harassment, unpaid overtime, child labor and other violations to go unnoticed, especially if the auditors are paid off or workers are coached on what to say. If you were a Bangladeshi worker confronted by an auditor, with your factory manager listening from around the corner, how likely are you to speak your mind? Equally inefficient are hotlines, which workers rarely use to report violations because they fear retribution or distrust the operators.
Without ongoing transparency, is it difficult for brands to fully understand what labor violations are occurring in their supply chains.
A Mobile Solution to a Global Problem
In 2010, Silicon Valley supply chain analytics company LaborVoices, Inc. launched a technology platform to tackle this very problem. It's labor analytics tool leverages the one resource almost 90% of workers around the world have at hand: their mobile phone. By crowdsourcing real-time data from workers via voice-based mobile surveys, LaborVoices enables real-time supply chain intelligence for brands.
LaborVoices took this approach one step further in January 2016 by launching its new mobile model, Symphony. Rather than engaging workers to use the platform only inside of factories, which often causes delays due to hesitant factory managers, the new model targets workers directly via culturally relevant marketing campaigns. Additionally, Symphony provides workers with free access to rankings and reviews of nearby employers so they can find the safest and most ethical places to work throughout their professional lives.
LaborVoices makes Symphony data available to brands and factory managers on a subscription basis, allowing them access to up-to-date intelligence about their own factories’ performance, as well as competitor factories’ performance. Furthermore, by publishing sector-wide factory data every 6 months, LaborVoices creates an accountability among suppliers and factories that is unprecedented in supply chains, motivating them to better their workplace conditions to attract and retain brand customers as well as workers.
Since its beta launch in January 2016, Symphony has engaged over 5,000 workers in more than 120 factories across Bangladesh, giving more workers than ever before a voice and a means to find the best working conditions for themselves. Furthermore, Symphony’s worker user base is doubling every month, and LaborVoices expects to have data on close to 500 factories in the Bangladesh apparel sector and 100 in the Turkish apparel sector by the end of 2016.
An Ethical Supply Chain
Sector-wide transparency is key to creating an ethical supply chain, and mobile technology is the most effective way to promote transparency and accountability of factory management and brand customers around the world. By shedding light on labor standards in factories across the apparel industry, we can start an industry-wide labor sustainability revolution.