(Arifa, a single mother of three children, and a garment worker I met while traveling in Bangladesh)
One moment Reshma Begum was sewing. The next she was falling from her station on the second floor into the basement of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Savar, Bangladesh.
She lost consciousness. She awoke to cries of help that gradually silenced. Her clothes were shredded, everything was dark, and her hair was stuck in the rubble. She ripped her hair free and scavenged the dark crevices on her hands and knees finding four crackers, a small bottle of water, and the occasional puddle to quench her thirst. She probed her surroundings with a pipe for pockets of air.
This was her life. This was her living for seventeen days (as described to CNN).
Reshma was the last survivor pulled from the Rana Plaza garment factory, which collapsed two years ago.
More than 1,100 Bangladeshi mothers and fathers and sons and daughters died in the largest garment industry disaster in history.
After Rana Plaza I was disheartened to hear the discussion of how to prevent future disasters and labor wrongs in the industry limited to: What can we do as consumers? What should brands do? What should governments do?
Few were asking what I felt to be the most important question: How do we give workers a voice?
Reshma and her co-workers saw the cracks in the walls the day before the factory collapsed, but they sat at their machines like good, silent workers because they couldn't afford to lose a day's wage or their jobs. Besides, who would listen if they did speak up?
In order to improve the state of the global garment industry two things have to happen:
1) Workers need to feel empowered to speak up;
2) We (governments, brands, retailers, and consumers) need to listen.
In 2007 I traveled to Bangladesh for a month visiting with garment workers, sharing bowls of rice on the floor in their ramshackle apartments, playing cricket in the streets with their kids, teaching aunts and uncles how to play ultimate Frisbee, and most of all I listened.
I listened to the struggles they faced as some tried to support their family on a monthly wage of $24 when rice to feed a family of four cost $15.
My experiences meeting apparel workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Honduras, and Ethiopia are documented in my book Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes. Since the first edition I've paid close attention to the garment industry now that I had friends who worked in it. And one of the most positive developments in the industry that I've seen in the past decade gives workers a voice and allows those voices to be heard--LaborLink.
LaborLink gives workers a free and anonymous method of reporting factory safety issues, mistreatment, or any other concerns they may have via their mobile phones.
Using LaborLink Reshma and her co-workers could have reported their concern through the Worker Help Line (known as Amader Kotha in Bangla) operated by the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. The 3rd-party reporting channel could alert emergency services, inspectors, and the factory owners to address the concerns immediately. Brands that source from the factory can also be alerted. A failure to address the concern could put the factory's business relationships at risk.
Today the help line is available to 500,000 workers at 280 factories in Bangladesh, and in 16 other countries. The Alliance offered this account in their February 2015 newsletter of how it works in Bangladesh:
"In one factory, a worker called to report that an electrical panel was uncovered. The worker, who observed loose wires as well, was concerned that a spark could ignite a fire at any time. The worker had informed management before calling the Helpline but no action had been taken. After Helpline Representatives informed Alliance staff, factory management was immediately notified. Still no action was taken to address the report of the hazard. After another call to the factory-- this time with a request that the electrical panel be fixed within the day--the electrical panel was fully repaired. The Helpline was able to inform the worker that the problem had been resolved."
I spoke to Heather Franzese, LaborLink's Executive Director about the role of Helpline-like services in the future of global manufacturing.
"Within five years," Franzese said, "every electronic and apparel company should have some kind of technology-enabled worker voice component strategy as part of their core supply chain."
Each call and text to LaborLink produces a data point around a concern or issue, and Franzese believes that ultimately a wealth of data will fuel predictive analytics that allow problems to be addressed before they are problems at all.
Last year I was chatting with a high-level executive at a brand that obsesses over its environmental and social impact. I asked him why was it that the environmental movement in manufacturing is going strong, but there is so little focus on the workers and how they are treated. He told me every decision they make as a company to reduce their environmental impact saves them money in the long run, but addressing social issues costs them.
Franzese believes LaborLink could help address this concern. She told me the costs of higher wages and safer factories will be offset by retaining workers. Hiring and training a new worker can be expensive, so increased worker input on what they are happy and unhappy about can positively impact a factory's bottom line.
In the wake of Rana Plaza major companies, such as Walt Disney, Cisco, and American Eagle Outfitters, are embracing LaborLink's technology. Vodafone released a report highlighting that their mobile-reporting initiative, Worker Panel, could lead to livelihood benefits for 18 million workers of up to $2.1 billion annually.
That's $116 per worker, which might not seem like a lot. But tell that to Arifa, the single mom of three kids I met in Bangladesh who was earning $24 per month in 2007. Tell that to the thousands of Bangladeshis who lost loved ones in disasters over the past decade.
Mobile technology that gives workers a voice, and a voice that is listened to, could have prevented the Rana Plaza collapse altogether. And I would no longer wonder if my friends were killed in the most recent industry disaster, and you would no longer have to wonder if someone died making your blue jeans.