Labor Voices is facilitating more transparency in international labor markets by crowdsourcing intelligence from directly from laborers via mobile phone surveys and using it to push for changes within supply chains.
The New Idea
Our global supply chain becomes increasingly complex each year, and despite local and international efforts to encourage best practices and protect workers’ rights, significant abuses and negligence persist. Recent high-profile tragedies like the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh that claimed more than 1,000 lives only highlight how much work remains to be done. Kohl founded Labor Voices (LV) to address two problems simultaneously: the lack of transparency in global supply chains, and the absence of voice for workers around the world. Labor Voices partners with local organizations to reach manufacturing and agricultural workers directly and collect real-time anonymous information about their work conditions via mobile phone surveys. Once aggregated, this data provide global brands and their supply chains what has been missing: an early warning system based on direct feedback from workers. Just as important, the lines of communication established with workers, and the information collected about factories in cities and countries across the globe, gives those workers for the first time the power of information to make informed choices about where and how they work – information they can easily share with one another. At a time when unions are in decline globally, Labor Voices can reach workers and give them less detectable ways to organize, rebalancing the power scale in their direction with potentially major economic, social and political implications.
Labor Voices was founded in 2010 and partners with global brands like Walmart that pay for access to real-time information about their supply chain. LV also works closely with factory owners and labor organizations in countries like India, Bangladesh, and Argentina who help them reach workers. As of 2014 Labor Voices is exploring partnerships in China and in the future hopes to share its data with consumers who can then hold companies accountable.
In today’s complex supply chains, leading corporate brands offshore production to low-cost countries and often to the lowest bidder. Workplaces in the garment and electronics industries in particular are often plagued by labor violations – withheld wages, unsafe conditions, child labor, frequent harassment and more. The situation is especially dire for the tens of millions of migrant workers around the world, many of whom are susceptible to indenture and trafficking. A large proportion of such workers must ‘buy’ their jobs and arrive already deeply in debt. Several high-profile cases over the last three years – including an Apple Computer factory in China and a garment factory collapse in Bangladesh – have brought renewed attention to the dire circumstances within the work environments where many of the products we buy are made.
While efforts to establish global supply chain standards and hold corporations more accountable have made significant inroads over the last two decades, there remains a remarkable lack of transparency in labor markets. Much of this has to do with information – or lack thereof. Workers have little knowledge of their rights, of support systems available to them, or of better work opportunities that might be available. And despite having the best perspective on the day-to-day realities within their workplaces, they have few places to voice concern and share grievances, especially in an era where unions are increasingly targeted or corrupted. Meanwhile, despite corporate codes of conduct, many big brands themselves don’t often know the real-time status within their own complex supply chains, in part because their procurement practices tend to be aligned against CSR priorities. Third-party audits are too infrequent, corruptible, and difficult to scale to prevent even the most predicable disasters. Finally, at the end of the supply chain, consumers have almost no information about the real-time practices within the supply chains of the products they buy and therefore cannot exert effective pressure on employers to reform.
Modern mobile communications technology is a game-changer in terms of organizing labor and bringing radical transparency into labor markets, and yet until now has not been effectively integrated into the labor movement. The result is that “not knowing” is still a common excuse to deny culpability for labor violations of all kinds.
The Labor Voices strategy is designed around a simple idea: information is power. To the extent that we can both glean information from and provide information directly to workers, we can begin to shift the power back toward labor and bring about transformational change in workplaces around the world. Modern communications makes this more possible than ever, and overcomes many of the challenges of traditional labor organizing, not least of which is that such activities are highly detectable and easily corrupted or suppressed.
At the core of the LV model is a direct channel of communications with wage workers. In partnership with local labor and community organizations, Labor Voices reaches out to workers and provides them with a toll-free number that they can dial from their mobile phones to connect to LV audio portals. The portals, also designed in partnership with local groups, are populated with relevant content, programmed in regional languages, and recorded in local voices. Simple surveys enable people to both contribute content – about a range of topics related to their working conditions – and receive information about their rights and about organizations and services available to them locally. Questions range from being quite targeted – “did you witness any clear labor violations today” to more open ended – “what would you like to see change?” More recently, Labor Voices has begun asking workers what kind of information they would most like to receive – with some surprising results, including in one examples workers who wanted to know whether or not the water in the on-site latrines was safe to drink. Workers are encouraged to establish Labor Voices “profiles” so they can remain in contact as they change jobs.
With this line of communication established and always evolving, Labor Voices begins warehousing the worker-generated information so that it can be aggregated and analyzed to generate credible, real-time and actionable reporting on working conditions around the world. Such information has tremendous value for a wide range of stakeholders, including international labor rights organizations who want to know whether their initiatives are having a demonstrable effect on the factory floor. Not surprisingly, big corporate brands are also interested and are willing to pay for access to the information as a way to better predict and prevent disruptions in their supply chains. Labor Voices generates significant operating revenue through contracts with such corporations.
Importantly, Labor Voices has the permission and owns the rights to repurpose the data it gathers from workers and publish it through a pre-defined route and timeline, which keeps them and everyone else accountable for any abuses uncovered. As the sample sizes and amount of data grow, LV will populate a real-time reputation registry (nick-named R3) that would give them a sector-based view and allow them to publish employer-by-employer data. Again, this information will not only pressure multinational brands and retailers to move toward best-in-class suppliers, but will be fed back to Labor Voices users in order to direct them to best-in-class employers as well. In this way the idea is about more than disaster prevention: it is a vehicle for worker empowerment and worker choice. Competitive information is enormously valuable and can give workers more negotiating power when considering any form of employment – the kind of power that is typically reserved for management. Finally, in the future Kohl believes the information that comes from Labor Voices users can be packaged and disseminated in ways that will allow consumers to more realistically “vote with their wallets” in support of better labor standards.
Labor Voices works in partnership with a variety of stakeholders, and its growth and success depends on maintaining good relationships with what might seem like strange bedfellows – including multinational corporations, local employers, civil society organizations, unions and the press. Kohl sees each of these stakeholders as potential partners or customers for whom Labor Voices could provide value. And he hopes that over the long-term Labor Voices can precipitate systemic-level change within key sectors: for example, with the help of new data, bring the management of CSR interventions more deeply into corporate operations, procurement and risk-mitigation divisions. Or shift global reporting about labor violations away from only the loudest and most tragic events toward more data-driven, more consistent labor market reporting akin to reporting about financial markets and other business news.
Labor Voices was founded in 2010 and has secured two significant corporate contracts within the last year, including with Walmart for its textile factories in Bangladesh. Approximately 350 workers have used the Labor Voices platform to date – in India, Bangladesh, Argentina, and California. Kohl and his team are in conversations with a strong lead in China, and are speaking with several U.S.-based labor organizations as well. Their 2014 budget is just over $2 million, most of which is generated through revenue from corporate contracts, and they have a full-time staff of eight.
Kohl was born and raised in rural Mississippi, the sixth of seven siblings. His parents emigrated from India in the 1970s. From the United States, he and his family watched as their home state of Punjab, India, descended into a terrorist state of violence and corruption. Even as a child, Kohl remembers being horrified to hear that you couldn’t even trust the police where his parents had grown up. The idea of rampant corruption stuck with him.
Kohl studies physics, completing his PhD at the University of California Santa Barbara, mostly because he loved it. Upon graduation, determined to spend a least a year doing service work, he went to India to get involved with anti-corruption work as a volunteer paralegal through India Corps. It was here that he got ‘bit by the transparency bug’ and had the revelation that transparency could have a tremendous power to effect radial change disproportionate to the amount of effort put in.
Kohl ended up Washington D.C. where he received two science policy fellowships, with the Department of Energy and then the human rights bureau at the State Department. In 2008 he was sent on a 2008 trade and labor rights delegation to South Asia. Back home, crowd-based rating tools such as Yelp were gaining popularity. At the same time, an entire generation of workers were connecting with each other via mobile phones. And all the while, government officials he worked with, and representatives from multinational corporations, were starved for real-time data from the field. None of them knew what was actually going on in global supply chain factories, and so decisions were being made about global trade and whole countries’ economies in a data vacuum.
Upon returning, Kohl circulated a thought piece on how a consortium of organizations could radically improve global labor conditions, hoping that someone else might run with it, but neither USAID nor the US Departments of State or Labor showed interest. He then realized that there could be many profitable ways to do this wrong – to gather data from workers and hold it secret, use it for blackmail, and any number of other abuses. If this happened, workers might not trust honest technology providers for years. To head off this disaster, someone had to do it right – and transparently – the first time. So Kohl began exploring the possibility of starting his own initiative and in 2010 began initial pilot activities in India. Labor Voices was founded.