MUMBAI, Sept 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Textile
workers from Bangladesh to Turkey are using cellphones to report
child labour, delayed wages and trafficking - a trend rights
groups say shows the promise of technology in tackling abuses in
the garment industry.
Two mobile services, both by U.S.-based companies, encourage
workers to call toll-free numbers to anonymously log violations
they see around them.
The idea is to give big brands early warning of problems at
the furthest ends of their supply chains as they seek to comply
with tougher legislation against labour exploitation and modern
"One of the big challenges for companies in locations far
from their suppliers is: How do you hear from workers directly?"
said Sarah Labowitz, co-director of the Center for Business and
Human Rights at the NYC Stern School of Business in New York.
"When it comes to issues such as discrimination, harassment
and abuse, workers have a role in flagging these problems. And
as with a lot of social problems, we often look to technology
for solutions," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The two systems, Laborlink and LaborVoices, are similar.
Workers call and answer simple questions, pressing 1 for "yes"
and 2 for "no".
Questions are along the lines of: Are you being treated
fairly? Are wages paid on time? Are fire exits locked? Have you
seen a child worker?
An analysis of calls to LaborVoices from more than 5,000
workers in Bangladesh in the first half of the year showed
almost a fifth of factories had a "high risk" of child labour,
Ayush Khanna, a LaborVoices director, said.
"Mobile-phone penetration in developing countries is more
than 90 percent today, so it's an obvious technology to use to
increase the transparency and accountability of the supply
chain," he said in a phone interview.
"The system gets around many of the limitations of
traditional audits, which are slow, occasional and may be
inaccurate because workers are afraid."
Bangladesh, which ranks only behind China as a supplier of
apparel to Western countries, relies on garments for more than
80 percent of its exports and about 4 million jobs. Workers earn
a minimum monthly wage of $68, compared with $280 in China.
Low wages and poor working conditions have plagued the
country's $26 billion garment export industry. Bangladesh had
one of the worst industrial accidents in 2013, when more than
1,000 people were killed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza
In May this year, three workers were killed in a fire at a
textile factory near Dhaka.
Since the Rana Plaza disaster, legislation has been
introduced for greater supply-chain transparency and improved
rights and safety for workers. But progress has been slow.
The 5,239 workers who called LaborVoices in the first half
of the year worked in 85 factories in Dhaka and Chittagong,
which supplied more than 30 global brands including Walmart,
Target, Zara, Adidas, H&M and Levi's, Khanna said.
LaborVoices is also tracking abuse of Syrian migrant workers
in Turkey's garment industry, seeking evidence of forced labour
and trafficking, Khanna said.
Laborlink has reached more than 500,000 workers in 16
countries from China to Colombia, the company says.
But while technology can help flag abuses in the supply
chain, it cannot single-handedly solve them, Labowitz said.
"Calls from workers is a good system to have, but it is not
a substitute for audits and checks," she said. "You need both to
tackle the issues in the supply chain."
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Timothy
Large. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate
change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)