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A Yelp For Developing World Working Conditions

Despite spending $50 billion to audit factories for companies such as Nike, Gap, and others, the system to ensure safe and humane working conditions is still routinely gamed. For factory owners, social auditor visits can be an excuse to slap on cosmetic changes and give workers the day off. One Bangladeshi workshop disaster that killed 64 people several years ago had passed two social and “quality audits” by SGS and Carrefour, while the most recent building collapse, Rana Plaza, which killed 1,129 people this year sparking global outrage, took place at a building that had also been audited, but the structural integrity of the building was not part of the process.

“Auditing,” says one Kenyan worker in a factory supplying Sears and Wal-Mart, “is more about securing orders than improving the welfare of the workers” in a report by the Clean Clothes Campaign (PDF).

Publishing anonymous reviews of working conditions by employees, and letting the world see what they have to say, may change today’s fragmented and secretive auditing process. That’s the strategy behind LaborVoices, a for-profit company, trying to expose how the world’s factories, and brands, do business. The goal is to bring radical transparency to a labor market that is still mostly invisible.

LaborVoices allows workers to register anonymous, public employer reviews by text and voice through their mobile phones. The company then sells advance notice of their suppliers’ employee reviews to major brands so they can clean up their act, or find new companies to fulfill their lucrative contracts, before the bad news is released (if it exists at all). All information is made public after an embargo period.

Kohl Gill, the company’s CEO, a former semiconductor physicist and State Department employee, hopes LaborVoices will make near total transparency the new standard for responsible manufacturing by arming individuals and labor organizations with voice, SMS, QQ, websites and smartphone tools, as well as higher expectation.

“The key to all this is that the more workers know what they are getting into from the very begin the easier it will be ask for them to avoid [abuses] in the future,” says Gill. “And the more brands know, the fewer excuses they have and the more empowered consumers will feel will to demand better working conditions.”

Companies, even well meaning ones, struggle to stay competitive by manufacturing in countries such as Bangladesh and India, while sticking to standards that prevent abuses. Christine Cherevko of the auditing firm SGS, which conducts audits for the garment industry, says companies face a thicket of competing standards without clear coordination. “Right now, [the auditing industry] is being driven by brands trying to protect their image. It’s completely voluntary,” she says. “Several different social responsibility audit schemes exists, and this is why [companies] are having such a hard time.”

For now, LaborVoices is focused on the garment sector. Next on Gill’s list are consumer electronics (Apple’s supplies will be a major focus), minerals and almost any other products or service where customs can have a say in how their products get made.

Reactions by major brands, says Kohl, have generally been more welcoming than hostile (Walmart is a partner). Some companies, weary of NGO attacks and expensive overlapping audits (separate suppliers may check the same factory multiple times), say they want a more transparent supply chain to spread the accountability (and possibly undercut less scrupulous competition). One company asked LaborVoices to make the auditing information public immediately to highlight its suppliers’ practices.

But it’s risky. Workers who post negative comments about their employers could be fired or worse if they are identified. Losing multimillion dollar contracts with Western firms will undoubtedly inspire some employes to resort to hacking and intimidation.

Kohl is planning for that. While his system won’t deter a concerted attack, the review system reportedly has built-in safeguards and stores identifying data on voice recordings rather than more easily accessible text records. “It’s going to be an arms race where factories, employers, and recruiters are going to try to access our user base and intimidate them,” says Gill. Ultimately, he’s confident it will simply be cheaper to improve working conditions than hack into LaborVoices and decipher the data.

Giving a voice to workers who the world only sees after disasters at far away factories may finally give them the chance to be heard.

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Mystic Maggie

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