The global garment and textile industries generate $3 trillion in revenues annually and employ an estimated 60-75 million people – three quarters of whom are women. Though production has increased in countries like Mexico, Panama, Turkey, and Egypt, most of the world’s fabric, clothes, and shoes are still made in Asia (particularly China, Bangladesh, India, and Vietnam).
Workers have seen a slow improvement in their working conditions due to international labor organizations, human rights treaties, government regulations, improved audit and inspection protocols, and consumer-led campaigns. But many millions of garment and textile workers still suffer in dismal working conditions. A Silicon Valley startup called LaborVoices realized that most of today’s factory workers own one key asset, a mobile phone, which can be used to report poor working conditions or to seek information on employers. So the company created a mobile platform, SmartLine Symphony, which allows workers to anonymously report abuse, safety issues, delays in payment, or children in the workplace. Then they gave access to the information to everyone in the supply chain, providing factory owners the opportunity to proactively address workers’ concerns before damaging their relationship with key clients. The service, launched 6 months ago, is already being used by over 3000 workers in more than 100 factories in Bangladesh, and user numbers are doubling every month. The company hopes to expand the service to Turkey, China, Mexico, and Vietnam in 2017.
Those in the garment and textile industries acknowledge that market- and profit-driven problems will require creative, nuanced solutions. While labor standards agreements, audits, and inspection regimes have been somewhat effective, they often pit retailers against manufacturers, and there is still a lot of room for corruption and abuse. Crowdsourcing and sharing data with all members of the value chain empowers workers and increases transparency and accountability among factory owners and retailers. As more low-income workers acquire mobile phones and Internet access, the crowdsourcing model can be readily applied to other industries, environmental or political movements, and social service delivery. Capturing and sharing data from the formerly voiceless will continue to grow into a powerful new development tool.