The muted response from global retailers following last month's garment factory collapse in Bangladesh has prompted labor groups and non-goverment organizations to renew their push to improve wages and eliminate hazardous workplaces in the developing world.
While brands such as Benetton and J.C. Penney try to spin a public relations catastrophe, worker advocates search for new ideas to transform an industry dogged by accusations of perilous conditions and egregious human rights violations.
But reform efforts in the global garment industry have a long history of failure, underscoring the challenges posed by entrenched corruption, government neglect, the absence of basic infrastructure or safety codes, and the desperation of impoverished workers.
Still, amid mounting concerns that another factory collapse is just around the corner, labor groups in the West continue to press for reform, often with offers of partial fixes and ideas that were tried and failed before. One of the latest efforts is Labor Link, a mobile technology from Oakland-based nonprofits Fair Trade USA and Good World Solutions that uses automated calls, interactive voice response and texting to survey workers about their working conditions, quality of life and wages.
Fair Trade USA, which certifies goods that are produced in developing nations using sustainable environmental practices and fair labor standards and audits their sale to U.S. companies, brought in a small Bay Area tech organization, Good World Solutions, to launch the service in 2010. They started with artisan weavers in Peru, and have since expanded to more than 20,000 workers in factories and farms across Latin America, Asia and Africa.
From their cellphones, workers can anonymously, and for free, divulge concerns about safety and management problems to clothing companies and auditors, who may then be able to pressure factory owners and local governments to take action. Labor Link also sends messages in the workers' native language about minimum wage and union rights.
Heather Franzese, who oversees the Labor Link program, says that long before the Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing at least 500 people and igniting a backlash against Bangladesh officials and Western retailers, Good World Solutions had been getting near weekly requests to do something about the woeful conditions there.
"Workers need a voice," Franzese said. "They said something to police (in Bangladesh) and nothing happened."
But some labor experts say Labor Link is a 21st Century version of the hotlines some apparel brands used in the 1990s with few results. Many of those workers struggle with the same or even harsher conditions.
"Over the years, hotlines have just not been successful," said Katie Quan, associate chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.
Some labor leaders worry that Labor Link and other flashy tech services will distract retailers from taking more meaningful action and give factories a free pass to continue their shoddy labor practices.
"It is a gimmick," said Scott Nova, executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based Worker Rights Consortium. "What we don't need is companies selling largely useless technology that factories can then use to defend their labor practices."
Undeterred by such criticism, Good World Solutions will bring Labor Link to Bangladesh this summer, hopeful that it will be a lifeline for workers and prevent the next tragedy. Next, Franzese said, they plan to expand Labor Link in China.
Good World Solutions has sold the technology to about a half dozen clothing companies, including Indigenous, a clothing line headquartered in Santa Rosa. CEO and co-founder Scott Leonard said the company used Labor Link to ask its 1,500 workers in Central and South America about their standard of living, including the types of foods they could afford.
"It gives us a deeper understanding how the workers are doing," Leonard said. "We're talking about literally saving lives, and we're talking about improving people's living conditions."
Factories, too, are using Labor Link, such as Rajlakshmi Cotton Mills in West Bengal, India. The 500-employee factory makes clothes for U.S. fitness brands Prana and Gaiam, and about 20 European clothing lines. Factory manager Rajat Jaipuria said union leaders have used Labor Link to ensure workers have safe and hygienic conditions.
The anonymous texting system "will help and solve some of the worker problems," he said.
But history suggests differently, as UC Berkeley's Quan said worker surveys and hotlines have been used for years with few results. A survey more than a decade ago of Nike factory workers in Indonesia turned up serious labor issues, many of which the company has acknowledged remain today.
"The problem is not that brands and retailers do not know what's going on. It's not a problem of information," said Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium. "It's about whether or not the retailers and brands give a damn about the rights and safety of workers. And when they do give a damn, they know how to fix those problems. They don't need a text message to tell them that."
Contact Heather Somerville at 925-977-8418. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.