Lean Data in Action: “WorkerTech” Improves Factory Conditions

Today’s global supply chain is an expansive and enigmatic network. Much uncertainty lies beneath the surface of your smartphone and favorite pair of jeans. Who made them? Where did they come from? Was the factory manufacturing this product a dream job or a place of nightmares? It is hard to know—for you the consumer, and for the company sourcing from factories across the globe.

The new field of “WorkerTech” is addressing this lack of supply chain transparency and accountability. Earlier this month, Green Biz highlighted 9 tech companies with WorkerTech solutions that are shining new light on labor and social justice issues in the manufacturing, construction, and microfinance sectors. On this list is Good World Solutions (GWS), an Oakland-based nonprofit social enterprise that activates appropriate technology to help companies build more socially-responsible supply chains. Leveraging the spread of mobile phones in developing and emerging markets, GWS’ Laborlink platform enables factory workers to report anonymously on their working conditions in real-time, directly from their mobile phone.

Laborlink is part of the broader “Lean Data” trend, a shift in the way nonprofits and social enterprises collect and use technology in the field. Lean Data is characterized by four key elements:

  1. Customized: Data collected is tailored to the needs of the organization, not one-size-fits-all
  2. Customer-Centric: Information needs are focused on beneficiaries—or “customers” in the social enterprise lens—not driven by the needs of donors or investors
  3. Actionable: The purpose of the data is to inform strategic decision-making, not used for reporting
  4. Timely: Mobile and other cost-effective technologies enable reliable, real-time data collection that was previously impossible or cost-prohibitive

Let’s look at these concepts in action through the lens of Laborlink’s efforts to improve conditions for factory workers, construction workers, and microfinance borrowers.

Each of the 3 examples below addresses a customized issue specific to the local environment and to the needs of the target population (making it customer-centric). Laborlink leverages simple mobile technology to collect data that was quickly visualized into actionable analytics, providing companies and factories with the timely insight to make worker-centric decisions to improve conditions and worker well-being. (See this earlier post on NTEN to see how Laborlink works.)

  1. In apparel manufacturing: “Was it made in a hazardous working environment?”

Standard factory audits only occur once or twice a year. This provides companies with a small snapshot of their supply chain and lingering questions about what happens the rest of the year. By providing workers with a free communication channel, workers are empowered to be the real eyes and ears on the factory floor. When workers are frequently asked, “Do you feel safe at work?” companies receive vastly more insight between audits allowing them to troubleshoot new issues that might surface. Mobile surveys are also cost-effective, making it possible to scale and survey more frequently throughout the year. This provides companies with better supply chain visibility and gives key decision-makers the ability to quickly detect warning signs of hazardous working conditions.

  1. In the construction sector: “Are workers’ rights and pay protected?”

Laborlink polled workers in the construction sector in India about wages and employment status. Workers were connected to a vocational training program with investment from Acumen. Surveys were run side-by-side with three different methods: automated calls, live calls, and face-to-face interviews. The pilot identified that the Lean Data method of automated calls through Interactive Voice Response (IVR), while requiring shorter and simpler surveys, has advantages of being more scalable and cost-effective (a few cents per call after initial setup cost).

  1. In the microfinance sector: “Were borrowers mistreated by loan officers?”

Asking sensitive questions about mistreatment such as harassment is not easy. Mobile surveying, however, makes this possible by providing an anonymous and secure channel that allows respondents to feel safe. From a survey conducted with microfinance borrowers in India, Laborlink received 9 times greater disclosures on sensitive questions compared to live agent call centers and face-to-face interviews. With mobile, rural borrowers can easily listen to questions in their native language (no literacy required) and discreetly respond using the keypad.

With advancements in WorkerTech, there is potential to capture and provide Lean Data in every sector of the global supply chain. Only then will it be possible for companies to clearly navigate their supply chains and effectively surface and respond to all workers’ vulnerabilities.

Since 2010, Laborlink has reached more than 350,000 workers in the supply chains of major apparel and electronics companies in 16 countries, including China, India, and Bangladesh. Already on a trajectory to reach 1 million workers by 2018, the vision of Laborlink is for every worker to have a free and anonymous channel to report directly to decision-makers about their working conditions and needs in real time. You can find out more about Laborlink on Good World Solutions’ website.

Heather Franzese
A Purpose Economy 100 (PE100) global changemaker, Heather Franzese has been working for 15 years to improve the lives of vulnerable workers in global supply chains. She leads the award-winning social enterprise Good World Solutions, leveraging mobile technology to give voice to factory workers and real-time data to Fortune 500 clothing and electronics companies. Since 2010, the organization’s Labor Link platform has reached over 200,000 workers in 16 countries, including China, India, Bangladesh and Brazil. Previously, Heather launched the Fair Trade Certified™ Apparel & Linens program in the US, a new way for consumers to vote with their dollars for an alternative to sweatshops. She brings together industry experience with Columbia Sportswear Company and field experience working with small-scale farmers in West Africa. She sits on Etsy’s Manufacturing Advisory Board and holds a Masters in Economic Development from Harvard Kennedy School.