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Sometimes the technology you need to achieve a ‘game-changing’ breakthrough is already there, right under your nose. This is the certainly the case with a new approach to ethical and social factory audit that we’re trialing – based on the mobile phone.

We’re trialing a new way to enhance audit findings together with the NGO Good World Solutions, which has developed a mobile phone based questionnaire system called Labor Link.
Traditional face-to-face factory audits are still the bedrock of our approach. But they only serve as a snapshot in time on one given day and only involve a limited number of workers. Labor Link makes it easy and affordable to involve 200, 2,000 or even 20,000 participants in a factory survey or audit.

How does it work? Participants are invited to call Labor Link on their mobiles, Labor Link calls them back so the call is free for the worker, participants then answer around 20 standard or bespoke automated multiple choice questions, with all responses captured using a central server. Data is aggregated and analysed and made available via a secure, web-based user interface. The database doesn’t store workers’ mobile numbers so the process is completely anonymous.

We’ve already run trials using the technology at factories in Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh - focusing on ‘neutral’ themes such as health and hygiene knowledge and birth and marriage certification, to demonstrate how the system works to owners and workers without raising any 'hot' issues.
The results have been impressive. Workers enjoy the experience and welcome the chance to share their views. They also enjoy seeing the results, which we’ve posted on notice boards in the trial factories.

Owners also see the potential for staying in touch with their workers and carrying out regular checks on attitudes, behaviours and equipment. For M&S, the potential benefits are obvious - because the system highlights individuals’ concerns and surfaces trends - for example, a consistent problem on one shift or line or a polarisation in attitudes between supervisors and workers. With this information we can intervene more effectively to resolve issues before they become entrenched.

We’re running a third trial in China to assess whether we can use Labor Link to enhance traditional annual audits. This would allow us to access feedback from owners, workers and supervisors, perhaps three or four times rather than once a year. This seems feasible, because our trials have already connected us with 58,000 participants - a staggering leap in participation compared to conventional audits.

It’s early days for large scale worker surveys based on mobile technology, but we believe it could be a ‘game changing’ breakthrough, taking us way beyond compliance and bringing us closer to our supply chains than ever before.

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