The initiatives allow workers to call a toll-free number to report safety concerns anonymously

The initiatives allow workers to call a toll-free number to report safety concerns anonymously

A helpline set up to monitor conditions in Bangladesh's garment factories by encouraging workers to report abuses using their mobile phones has received a total of 92,416 calls since its launch two years ago. But while the initiative is giving retailers and brands more insight into what's really going on in their supply chains, technology alone is not the solution.

Established back in 2014 by US-based non-profit organisation Good World Solutions, in partnership with the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, Clear Voice and grassroots NGO Phulki in Bangladesh, the Amader Kotha – or 'Our Voice' in Bangla – helpline reaches workers in over 250 factories and received 4,704 calls in September alone.

The idea is that platforms such as Amader Kotha, and similar initiatives including those by LaborVoices (SmartLine) and Laborlink, will help bridge the gap between brands and factory workers in Bangladesh, empowering workers in the South Asian country by giving them a voice to report violations.

But while anything that gives more insight into the supply chain is a good thing, technology alone is no substitute for looking at the broader issues at hand, says Sarah Labowitz co-founder and director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, located at the Leonard N Stern School of Business at New York University. 

"I think that it's really important to include worker voices in assessments of how these supply chains are working," she tells just-style. "[But] any time there's a big social problem, we turn to technology to solve it. At the end of the day, a lot of the issues in the supply chain are about business practices and about regulations, and [while] I'm encouraged by anything to get more worker voice into the equation, I don't think we can take our eye off the larger ball.

"There are of course risks with the technology and how it's used in terms of privacy concerns, ensuring the veracity of the data, [as well as] hearing not only from workers in those factories that have relationships with a technology provider or a large brand. There are a lot of workers who aren't in those factories, who are in indirect sourcing factories...will those voices be part of any kind of technology solution?"

Labowitz adds that there can also be a desire to turn to technology "when other things are hard and aren't bearing fruit in the short term, and I think this is true across all kinds of social, political, economic problems – that we turn to technology when the long hard work of systemic change feels frustrating."

The way forward

Instead, Labowitz believes regulatory approaches and a "hard look" at business practices and the incentives that they create are the way forward.

"I don't think we have sufficient regulatory responses right now. I don't think we have the sufficient change in the way that sourcing practices work, so those things need to change. The technology and the information is useful to identify what's going on, and the question is then what do you do about it. I don't think the technology on its own answers that question.

"The way forward is around systems change and the application of standards across the industry – and technology can be useful in identifying the need for those standards. It would be particularly useful if it gave insight into what was happening in factories beyond the first tier, because I think that's an area of great risk for workers certainly, but also for companies."

Amader Kotha helpline

Workers are introduced to Amader Kotha as part of the Alliance's Basic Fire Safety Training, which is required of all factories that supply its North American members, including Gap Inc, JC Penney, Kohl's, Target, VF Corp and Wal-Mart. They can then use their phones to report safety and other concerns including child labour and delayed wages through a toll-free number. Helpline staff collect key information from the caller, including whether they want their identity to be disclosed.

The information is shared with designated factory managers, which gives factories the opportunity to respond to issues immediately. Serious safety concerns are passed on to Alliance technical experts, who investigate and ensure resolution of the issue. Management's response and/or action taken is reported back to the original caller.

In September, 309 substantive issues were shared with the helpline by workers at Alliance factories – with most relating to compensation, termination, and verbal abuse. Of the total, 61 substantive issues were related to safety while 20 issues were urgent, with about half of the urgent issues pertaining to active in-factory fires and physical abuse.

A similar platform, LaborVoices' SmartLine, also works in the same way, providing brands and suppliers with real-time visibility into factory conditions, enabling them to identify and solve problems before they become urgent.

Separately, through its Laborlink tool, which uses anonymous mobile phone surveys to collect information and opinions from workers around the world, Good World Solutions has now reached 850,000 workers in more than 16 countries. According to the company, the initiative is on track to reach 1m workers by 2018. Laborlink currently counts Marks and Spencer, C&A, Levi Strauss Foundation, Primark, and American Eagle Outfitters among its customers.