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Worker Safety Consultant Firms Help CEOs Listen to Workers

After all the negative international press that Apple suffered, when 150 workers at one of its Chinese sub-contractor’s factories threatened to commit suicide because of working conditions, many companies are looking for better ways to gather information about working conditions. For years, companies trying to assess their supply chains for human rights abuses have relied on third-party audits to monitor factories. Typically, trained monitors conduct physical inspections and interview workers at the jobsite. Samir Goswami of YES! Magazine reports on a new trend, where CEOs hear directly from workers.

In this era of globalized production, talking directly to workers is a challenge for large corporations. The average Fortune 1000 company employs between 20,000 and 40,000 sub-contractors all over the globe. The globalization of production means that raw materials travel great distances and are handled by many middlemen as they are transformed into finished products. Each step in the process may be suspect: The U.S. Department of Labor, for example, identifies 134 goods from 74 countries believed to be produced by child or forced labor. Countless other health and safety issues are not monitored. The supply chains are complex, and there’s no single organization monitoring the way the things we buy are produced. A company is seldom held legally liable for the practices of its sub-contractors.

One company that talks to workers is LaborVoices, Inc., which uses mobile phones to collect data directly from workers who can anonymously report working conditions in their own language to a recording service. Recordings inform workers what their rights are—from health care to unions. LaborVoices then compiles the data and provides it to businesses seeking independent verification of contractor labor practices. Companies with subscriptions can monitor information coming from workers at specific factories via an online dashboard.

Eileen Fisher uses a similar tool from Good World Solutions, an Oakland-based nonprofit that helps corporate clients design and launch mobile worker surveys and analyze data collected from the front lines. Last year, survey results from a community near Kolkata revealed that home workers weaving for Eileen Fisher suppliers lived below the poverty line. Hall, the CEO, says the company is now working with an Indian NGO to determine the best way to raise the weavers’ income: “Possible solutions include conducting time and motion studies to establish a fair wage rate and/or offering quality enhancement training for weavers to reduce rejected goods.”

Source: Samir Goswami, “For Safer Factories, CEOs Are Listening to Workers on the Frontlines,” Yes! Magazine, September 18, 2013, http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/the-human-cost-of-stuff/for-safer-factories-a-direct-line-to-the-ceo.

Student Researcher: Danielle Davis (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kathy Charmaz (Sonoma State University)

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