Having held senior corporate responsibility positions at Burberry and Gap Inc., Sean Ansett now provides strategic advice on ethical trade, human rights and environmental sustainability.
Zoë Arden spoke with him about his work with LaborVoices, a social enterprise that polls workers through their mobile phones to provide real-time visibility inside supply chains.
Zoë Arden: Can you tell me about LaborVoices?
Sean Ansett: It is a way for workers to voice concerns, share feedback and measure impact at the factory, field or mine level. Workers generally are more comfortable sharing thoughts outside the work environment – at home, on their commute, in their communities. But it is important to remember it is another tool in the kit, not a silver bullet.
We are experiencing strong response rates, over 50% in some cases. There is more willingness to share than in traditional social auditing processes where, increasingly, workers are being coached to respond to the auditors. You generally don’t see traditional corporate responsibility reporting cover what was actually learned or what has changed in the factories through social auditing or training programmes, so LaborVoices can be deployed for assessing the impact of learning and knowledge post training and then reported.
What is your view on the progress made in factories and what are the biggest problems that still remain?
There is sufficient academic rigour around the topic now that demonstrates there are great limitations to the social auditing model. Health & safety has generally improved with first tier suppliers in some sectors. Child labour issues have also improved at the first tier, but fundamental issues remain – wages, collective bargaining, discrimination – they haven’t changed dramatically and the industry has been auditing for 15 years. Is the investment really bringing return? Do we need to look at alternative methodologies for addressing these issues systemically?
Technology provides the means to convey information but personal interaction is needed to recruit workers to use it – can you describe that process?
The core limitation of both audit and hotline approaches is that there is a personal interaction or human component necessary to execute them, which then hinders their ability to replicate rapidly and their accuracy. While LaborVoices does conduct in-person orientations and user acquisition and retention campaigns, we also utilise remote and automated approaches just as effectively, and will only be doing more of that in the future as programmes scale.
The core limitation of both audit and hotline approaches is that there is a personal interaction or human component necessary to execute them, which then hinders their ability to replicate rapidly and their accuracy.
We’ve also had good results either directly where an NGO has gone in and explained it or through a ‘train the trainer’ approach, socialised through the factory. As workers use it and as they see some changes occur and word of mouth grows through the workforce, it builds a level of comfort.
What are the most common issues that the technology has revealed?
The more ‘common’ issues are around things like sanitation problems, lack of legal on-boarding processes or contracts, lack of understanding as to what constitutes overtime, machines not working properly, limited knowledge of emergency protocols, no rest breaks, and excessive working hours.
One interesting case in Central America with largely seasonal workers: we found out through the feedback mechanism that a lot of questions were being asked on how pay and overtime was being calculated. A number of workers were ready to leave and we were able to raise it quickly to management, which led to a meeting and the matter being resolved. A walkout at harvest time would have been disastrous. This is a good example of proactive information being provided on an issue in real time, which you don’t get in traditional audits.
How are the brands and retailers using the information?
They are following up on issues and trying to head them off before they snowball because they have more real time data. It is possible to build better worker profiles. For example, how long is someone’s commute, average household size, what are the socio-economic issues in communities, to create targeted training.
With LaborVoices, a worker can choose to stay connected when they move on to other workplaces, which is valuable. Previously it was very hard with social audit methodology, now you can do exit interviews about why they left. In some countries, labour is getting quite tight so it is important to understand why they are losing people and how to retain people. The company is only a few years old but data will become more interesting over time as more workers contribute to the data set.
Companies need to understand where a product is at any point in the value chain.
How is it shaping companies’ approaches to supply chains?
Brands will need robust stakeholder engagement mechanisms in place and a need for strong networks.
Information will move very fast. We’re talking about real time streaming of data through social media, increasing use of smart phones – you can ‘geomap’ factories and can see what brands are being produced in them. Companies need to understand where a product is at any point in the value chain.
There is a real opportunity because while companies often engage with international NGOs and global players, local engagement will become very important going forward. Transparency brings real opportunities as well as challenges and robust stakeholder engagement is critical.
There has been considerable growth in supply chain technologies designed to increase transparency – which do you see as holding most promise?
There are a number coming forward, increasingly understanding where tier one and also two and three tier suppliers are. Understanding where suppliers are based can help companies make better decisions about fundamentals.
Also from a story telling perspective, how to message sustainability attributes, you need to know the value chain well. You need to know where your products, components and raw materials are coming from.
Muddy Boots [software for the food supply chain that gives you transparency from grower to retailer], Historic Futures [supply chain data collection technology company] and Supply Shift [cloud-based supply chain management platform] are some of the technologies coming forward.
We can start to get really rich data – consumers are beginning to ask different types of questions about how products are sourced – it will create interesting stories about the value chain.
In China we’re seeing more penetration of smart phones so there is a real opportunity to look at enabled tech through apps. However, in areas of high illiteracy rates, voice prompts are clearly more effective.
What about the future?
We need to stay cautious. There are still great needs around capacity building and training. These technologies do not replace fundamental workplace principles like freedom of association and collective bargaining.
We’re trying to find partners to pilot some sort of Yelp platform for workers in the supply chain, to help workers improve management systems, rate factories, encourage peer review of workers. This type of platform could create a ‘marketplace’ for workers to identify better factories and encourage factories with low ratings to improve.
This article was originally published in Radar 09: Inside the Machine.