How to improve Worker Voice: WEST Principles and technological application

As the importance of hearing the worker voice continues to gain momentum in the supply chain industry, more and more organisations are turning their attention towards tackling the issues their workers face, across their whole supply chain, especially in developing countries.

This is seen through the establishment of The Worker Engagement Supported by Technology (WEST) Principles, which are a set of guidelines used to maximise the impact of technology-driven efforts to engage and understand the employment conditions of workers in global supply chains. This has involved industry experts and organisations coming together to co-author best practices and principles on how to design and implement solutions that identify and address worker abuse and exploitation.

There are 8 WEST Principles, which are contained within a four-phase process to aid understanding of the worker voice. (To read the full details of each Principle, please visit the WEST Principles website).

The first phase is the ‘Design Phase’, which contains the first three WEST Principles:

1. Start with Integrity and Purpose
2. Use Worker-Centric and Inclusive Design
3. Build Trust with Workers

The second phase is the ‘Engage Phase’:

4. Facilitate Uptake and Ownership
5. Manage Security and Risk

The third phase is the ‘Analyse Phase’:

6. Evaluate Outcomes and Processes

The fourth and final phase is the ‘Utilise Data Phase’:

7. Inform Decisions and System Changes
8. Collaborate and Share Learnings

The challenge of utilising technology to connect with your workers and improve their livelihood is that when poorly designed solutions are combined with such large issues, interventions can often fall short of the desired outcome. For example, a poorly designed data collection app may present incorrect issues to management. Therefore, all stakeholders within WEST Principles must ensure that their guidelines enable technology to have a positive impact for all workers.Improving the scope and reach of the worker voice is a difficult task. This problem is seen across all areas of the world, but it can be argued that those in developing nations are likely to be more vulnerable to workplace oppression. Additionally, in these areas, the risk of workers lacking access to basic amenities at work is greater. In the UK, it’s likely that the majority of work sites and staffing policies ensure our comfort and adhere to our basic human rights. However, those services and basic entitlements fail to exist for others.

Worker voice involves improving the platform from which workers can voice their opinions and concerns, helping to both improve their livelihood and the effective functionality of the business. Improving the scope and reach of the worker voice is a difficult task. This problem is seen across all areas of the world, but it can be argued that those in developing nations are likely to be more vulnerable to workplace oppression. Additionally, in these areas, the risk of workers lacking access to basic amenities at work is greater. In the UK, it’s likely that the majority of work sites and staffing policies ensure our comfort and adhere to our basic human rights. However, those services and basic entitlements fail to exist for others.

This includes a worker’s right to;

  • feel safe at work
  • have access to clean drinking water and appropriate sanitation facilities
  • be paid on time with no unfair wage deductions

Over the last few years, more and more companies have had labour issues uncovered within their supply chain – whether they were aware of it or not. From ‘sweatshop’ factories supplying equipment to sports retailers to forced labour in the Thai prawn fishing industry1, and bonded labour cases in Qatar in preparation for the 2022 FIFA world cup2, there have been many cases of poor practice across multiple scales and tiers of business.

As consumers in developed countries have become more aware of these issues affecting vulnerable workers, there appears to have been quite a marked turn in their outlook; to one that does not accept this behaviour and wishes to take action to improve ethical standards and sustainability across the whole value chain. A major barrier to this, from a worker voice perspective, was the lack of a reliable network to report and raise labour grievances. This barrier has led to the development of new technologies to identify and improve worker exploitation, as seen through the WEST Principles. There are a number of companies now working on new solutions and ideas that will further help to raise the volume of the worker voice in the business supply chain.

Although there are many types of technology being looked at and utilised, the simplest, and possibly the most effective, is the mobile phone. There are now more than 5 billion mobile phone users across the globe3. Furthermore, the data from GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association) in Figure 1 shows the distribution of mobile users across the globe – which may quash the argument that those who are most vulnerable don’t have access to technology4. A key benefit for companies developing technologies to be used on a mobile device is that the device platform doesn’t limit the target audience like other technology platforms might. The graph shows that the number of mobile phone users in developing countries is almost three times the amount of developed nations, with the projection for 2020 a lot greater. If we look at more specific areas, we can see that developing regions like Latin America are close to Europe’s figures. Furthermore, some areas such as MENA (Middle Eastern & North African) and Sub-Saharan Africa have a greater mobile phone penetration than North America, with their 2020 projection also higher than Europe. This shows us that the potential reach of mobile technology has the ability to alleviate worker exploitation.

Figure 1: Net total users of mobile phone subscribers, across different regions (Source: GSMA)

So how exactly are companies using mobile phones technology to raise the volume of the worker voice? LaborVoices are a start-up in the United States that have created a mobile sharing platform, known as Symphony. This allows workers to create and share their own information about their working conditions, via mobile phone. Essentially, Symphony creates polls that workers fill in, to cover various issues such as health and safety, management style and pay structure.

In Bangladesh and China, factory workers use their mobiles to ‘score’ each condition, which is then collated onto the database, and used to assign ratings and reviews for multiple factories5. Workers can then view the standards of the factories in their area, so they know the best and worst places to work. In addition, employers can also view this anonymous data to help highlight the areas that require improvement by management. Through highlighting the shortfalls of a factory, it is more likely that the employer will seek to change their rating, by improving conditions or providing better facilities, so that they can continue to have a large supply of workers, rather than losing staff to higher rated and potentially competitive firms. LaborVoices publish the data in real-time, which helps to provide transparency about working conditions right now for those workers.

This principle works on the assumption that the ratings assigned to factories go on to influence the workers’ choice of workplace. In reality, this might not be the case. For example, in India, the huge disparity between the rich and the poor is only increasing with the development of technology. The work ethic of many poorer groups, those most likely employed in the garment industry, is to take any job they can in order to sustain an income. Whilst it is not acceptable that workers endure poor conditions and workplace suffering, the reality of workers turning down potential jobs or not applying for jobs because of a poor a rating may be too optimistic. However, despite some reservations, other initiatives such as Good World Solution’s LaborLink, appears to be making a real difference in the world. Since the launch of Laborlink in 2010, almost 1.1 million workers have been reached, with over 3.3 million data points accessed through 382 factories and communities, across 16 countries

However, despite some reservations, other initiatives such as Good World Solution’s LaborLink, appears to be making a real difference in the world. Since the launch of Laborlink in 2010, almost 1.1 million workers have been reached, with over 3.3 million data points accessed through 382 factories and communities, across 16 countries6 – suggesting that the benefits of this initiative may far outweigh any smaller issues, and certainly that there is an appetite to try it out.

At the Sedex Conference 2017, a group of panellists discussed the use of technology to unlock the worker voice. This included the opinions and thoughts of Heather Franzese, Executive Director at Good World Solutions, and Antoine Heuty, Founder and President of Ulula. They first discussed the topic of whether worker surveys were a substitute for auditing. Heather Franzese concluded that the tools a company uses to gather data all depend on the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) outcome or goal of that particular company.

For example, if a company’s purpose is risk or issue management, it’s more likely that the worker survey will be a complement to the auditing process, rather than a standalone procedure – “The survey could be used either before the audit, to obtain better information to help you target the audit, or perhaps in between audits to highlight high risk issues. If a company is more about managing systems, then a worker survey may well replace the need for auditing”. Furthermore, if suppliers always score highly in their audits, companies might not need to re-conduct the same assessment the next year, but may instead benefit from conducting a worker survey, which would also give them a different perspective of their supply chain.

The main benefit of worker survey tools from a buyer point of view is that the data obtained is unique, useful and will ultimately help manage business outcomes. These surveys shouldn’t be used as a ‘tick-box’ solution, or because suppliers have been made to take part – as according to Heather Franzese, this is simply not sustainable. What businesses and suppliers need to see is that worker surveys have a meaningful impact on a supply chain, for both sides.

This can be seen through Good World Solution’s two-year collaborative programme in China. A worker survey collected information on job satisfaction and job turnover from seventy factories which supplied to ten different brands and retailers.  This data was used to understand the risk areas in the businesses surveyed and implement positive change. Good World Solutions found that over the two-year period, there was a 15% drop in workplace stress and a 10% reduction in job turnover7. This showed that in a country like China, where the labour market is extremely tight, there is still real business value in hearing directly from workers in order to impact change. Worker surveys have been through a transformative process themselves – “‘in the beginning, we would include maybe a twelve-question survey, with four different topics. And we found that not only was it jarring for the worker to shift their answers on all these different topics, but we also weren’t able to give the factory actionable information. So, we’ve introduced survey design that enables key driver analysis so there will be a single topic for the survey”. They applied this to their two-year China collaboration, informing the factories that their key drivers in ‘job satisfaction’ and ‘job turnover’ were either supervisor relationships or the perception of the resolution of complaints. As a result, Good World Solutions were able to say to the factory “here are the top three things that you should work on if you want to address the issue of job satisfaction and staff turnover”. This key driver identification can be applied to all supplier surveys, regardless of the topic, and enables businesses to obtain very actionable information.

A potential issue with worker surveys that was flagged by both Heather Franzese and Antoine Heuty, was obtaining information but then not utilising/acting on it. If a problem is highlighted, what matters most is what you do with that data and what action will be taken. Antoine Heuty discussed that Ulula’s idea is to not have a one-way system which only extracts data from workers – companies must close the feedback loop and do something with the data to achieve a more positive working environment. Heather Franzese echoed this, and discussed that technology should be ‘designed for end use’, one of the 8 WEST Principles. Even if there is curiosity over what workers may think about certain topics, if there is no intended use for that information, then simply put, it’s a waste of time.

The panel then moved onto describe challenging events that the organisations have faced when using worker surveys. Good World Solutions carry out a lot of work in Bangladesh, given the vast amounts of garment and factory based industries located there. In Bangladesh, they have consistently found that over 50% of workers “report high levels of verbal abuse, but what’s unfortunate is that there is not a strong correlation between verbal abuse recorded and job satisfaction levels. In other words, workers are sort of conditioned to this way of working”. Heather Franzese concluded that in order to overcome this obstacle, the mindset of workers will need to change, to one that views poor working conditions as unacceptable.

The panel urged companies and suppliers to view the worker survey as an ongoing process, rather than a quick-fix solution. Antoine Heuty stressed that when starting out, companies should not be overwhelmed by the data they receive – “you may start from a disappointing base when you do your first surveys, like finding high levels of reported discrimination, but after a few cycles you will start to see rapid changes”. This achievement goes back to the principle of actually utilising the information you gather. By doing this, your worker survey would be expected to become more positive, which creates a happier, more productive supply chain, bringing multiple benefits to the business.

This idea of continuous improvement also reflects the nature of the WEST Principles and organisations seeking to unlock worker voice through technology. Good World Solutions have been on quite a journey over the past 6 years. Heather Franzese explained how “in the early days, I had to explain to people that we weren’t just giving out phones. Now, I think it’s understood that workers and farmers around the world have cell phones. We’ve successfully proven this concept, but we’re now at the stage of looking at that scale question. It’s interesting and valuable to do a pilot at 10 factories, but what does it look like to do this at 100 factories, along with having a new information source to integrate into the general systems, which is then used to drive business decisions? That’s where we’re at right now”.

Whilst it was widely agreed that worker surveys do provide valuable insight into supply chains, it is worth mentioning that for a greater chance of success, companies like Ulula and Good World Solutions will need to partner with the factories that need the most help to change. This will overcome the current problem, that it is the most progressive factories and companies who want to participate. Antoine Heuty described how this means the worst sites are likely to be missed – “a fair critique is that the real problem is not really being tackled fully, because we know that there are such practices in a number of places, and I don’t think you can act against the will of a supplier”. Ultimately, those factories that are likely to have the worst conditions for their workers will probably not utilise or implement a worker survey, so either there needs to be a legislative change which legally requires this or a change in factory owner mentality in many developing countries. Either way, it is a change in the mindset of how a society views the importance of human rights within business.

Prior to the panel discussion, the audience was asked about their greatest fears or hesitations to using mobile surveys. Optimistically, 41.8% said they were actually more enthusiastic than they were sceptical about the new technology. However, the biggest fear was that workers would not respond honestly, with 21.8% agreeing. Heather Franzese responded to this by addressing three key components that would hopefully prevent this from occurring. The first is that worker surveys are able to gather a lot more data, a lot quicker than audits could. Audits have major time restrictions on how many workers you can speak to face-to-face, so using technology enables businesses to capture hundreds or thousands of responses, offering a broader, more inclusive representation.

Secondly, mobile surveys allow companies to pick up sensitive issues that workers may not be comfortable telling an auditor or someone face-to-face. By answering a poll on their phone, they can remain completely anonymous which renders them more likely to be truthful. Finally, because the surveys can collect large amounts of information electronically, it is easier to detect patterns in the data, to see if there’s interference. Patterns include responding too quickly to questions, or too uniformly, which suggests that workers are either being told what to say or the suppliers are influencing the responses in some other way.

Overall, the panel provided some exciting and interesting ideas to help businesses and suppliers improve human rights, within their value chain. Whilst it remains paramount that these organisations continue to develop technologies to further aid workers’ voices, it is also important to address how suppliers interact with their workforce. Ultimately, workers all around the world, regardless of their location, should have the right to go to work and feel safe, happy and secure in their job.

Join thousands of businesses of all kinds across the world

Join Sedex