WORKER “DIALOGUE” RATHER THAN WORKER “VOICE”

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Mobile phone technology within responsible sourcing programs is becoming increasingly common. From the introduction of the Amader Kotha helpline in Bangladesh after Rana Plaza, to the growth of worker sentiment surveys and standalone worker wellbeing projects at factories, the trend is clear.

“It’s exciting and certainly has a future,” says Elena Fanjul-Debnam, Vice President, Labor Solutions at Workplace Options. “Countries are changing their rules and regulations around cellphone data and, coupled with more service providers entering the market, the price of mobile phone technology is reducing.”

With any new technology though, there is always more excitement than practicality. “Brands need to be thoughtful about what they want to achieve,” explains Elena. “You need a lot of sampling, account management and training. You also need to be cognizant of the end user. In this case, it is the worker. We have to think through how we implement worker grievance tools, what we do with the data, how we react to it and how we make changes based on what is said.”

Elena prefers the term ‘worker dialogue’ rather than ‘worker voice.’ Whereas worker voice describes a one-way tool, collecting information but, perhaps, not acting upon it, worker dialogue, instead, describes a conversation. “We are replying to workers and we’re getting to the bottom of what’s going on,” she explains. “We’re listening and that is where change is going to be made.”

While there is some discussion within the industry around the potential for worker dialogue technology to replace responsible sourcing audits, Elena believes the tools are distinct and should remain separate. “Audits attempt to be an objective assessment,” shares Elena. “For example, is minimum wage being paid? A worker may not know that nor, as another example, understand if there is an effective fire alarm system at the factory.”

According to Elena, brands should also be aware of the limitations of worker grievance technology as worker helplines. “Many helplines are built on a model which require a factory manager to ask their employees to report to a client whether they are a bad employer,” she shares. “Given this incentive structure, productive engagement is less likely. Also, third party helplines are so removed for workers that it’s also worth considering how vulnerable and aggrieved a worker must feel before using a third-party channel.”

Elena believes worker dialogue technology is deployed best at the factory. “The best place for change to happen is where workers can communicate directly with their employees,” she shares.

Worker dialogue tools only work where there is the ability to make change. If the factory asks, ‘How do you feel about your wage?’ but has no intention to increase it, it’s best not to ask the question. “It’s about trust,” explains Elena. “You want the workers to trust you and tell you things, but they are only going to confide in you so long as you act upon their feedback, or at least be able to tell them what the resolution was.”

“Brands also need to be careful about false negatives,” adds Elena. “One should not assume the absence of feedback means there are no problems.” As an example, Elena explains that she lived in Jakarta, Indonesia, for eight years, and has been in Singapore for two. She has filed more complaints in Singapore than she did in Jakarta, because her experience has been that in Singapore someone will listen, follow-up, then respond. In other words, the lack of complaints she filed in Jakarta does not indicate that there were less issues there.

People react to what they anticipate will happen. If a factory manager, in the past, has followed up upon what a worker said, they may be more likely to provide negative feedback again because they believe they will change things. By telling the truth, they are asking for change.

From the perspective of the factory, it’s about direct employers engaging their workers and really creating systems which enable that. “From a brand’s perspective, if we look at suppliers and know that they are having direct engagement with workers, we know the risk is decreased,” explains Elena. “I think the most effective place to deploy worker dialogue technology is factory by factory, facility by facility, because that’s the workers’ reality.”