Is 'worker voice' technology more than just kabuki theatre in the struggle for labour rights?

26/4/19 - Antoine Heuty, CEO of Ulula

Antoine Heuty argues that worker engagement technology can be a key tool for workers and unions in improving supply chain conditions.

This blog is part of our series on Beyond Social Auditing.

A recent article on this website criticizes “worker voice” technology as little more than a buzzword that fails to address the shortcomings of traditional audits. The piece goes on to propose worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) as a better way to improve working conditions.

Is “worker voice” mere Kabuki theatre, distracting attention from the structural power imbalances and failing to address labor rights abuses? Or can worker engagement supported by technology (WEST) foster a data-driven system to help identify abuses, and create a worker-centered approach to improving social and labor conditions?

The article’s critique offers an opportunity to underscore the different ways technology can be used to improve labor conditions. Recent reports for the Open Society Foundations and WEST Principles document the growth and variety of worker engagement technology applications across national borders and economic sectors.

This range of initiatives demonstrates the breadth of possibilities for leveraging technology to improve existing approaches and transcend social audits.

It’s also important to separate the “worker voice” technology itself from the conditions in which it’s used when evaluating its impact. The collection of worker feedback through technology - albeit in a safe, rigorous and continuous way - does not automatically translate into a greater agency for workers.

In other words, equating the use of technology with “voice” conflates cause and effect, fuels expectations of a simple tech fix to complex structural problems, and fails to focus on the practical contributions that technology can make.

For example, worker engagement supported by technology can address some of the structural flaws of social audits, such as the gap between standards and actual practices, “audit dressing”, lack of transparency, conflict of interests, and weak monitoring of corrective action.

The introduction of technology to directly source feedback from workers through surveys or grievance channels via simple mobile phones, or smartphone applications, creates an ongoing flow to reach a much larger and representative segment of the workforce on a more consistent basis.

The ability to participate discreetly and anonymously by phone also alleviates some of the fears of audit interviews and can encourage more honest feedback from workers. Worker voice technology applications add value by automating and safeguarding such processes to enable their use at a greater scale and frequency.

Direct worker feedback is automatically collated and analyzed without human interference - which limits the possibilities for manipulation and fraud. More advanced forensic tools also deter and detect efforts to coach workers by using random questions and flagging abnormal response patterns.

The triangulation of data can help heighten the audit process by identifying key challenges in the workplace and enabling more meaningful interventions by third parties - including social auditors.

Technology also helps verify whether corrective actions are implemented, and whether they are effective. It reduces the marginal cost of data collection, and enables a shift from outputs (Has a recommended action taken place?) to an outcome(Is it working?), and fosters a continuous learning and improvement process.

However, several factors continue to hamper the benefits of worker engagement technology being realized. While worker-generated data can be analyzed and shared across supply actors - workers, employers, worker representative organizations, buyers and third parties - current practices too often fall short of best practices, as summarized in the WEST Priniciples

Too often worker engagement technologies lead to a one-way collection of feedback, rather than a dialogue that enables workers to become directly involved in using data for meaningful change. Lack of transparency and communication undermines workers’ trust and the value of worker-engagement technologies.

Cross-industry collaboration also needs to accelerate the sharing and recognition of worker-generated data to enable greater focus on collective action and remediation.

Understanding the potential of worker engagement technology tools, as well as their limitations, can help bridge the false dichotomy between the WSR and WEST approaches. For example, the success and impact of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has helped define the WSR principles, and involved a very low-tech approach to worker engagement.

But as the CIW attempts to scale up its Fair Food Program in other sectors, can technology help worker-led movements operate more effectively to increase their reach and impact? More broadly, how can trade unions use technology to monitor working conditions and better connect and revitalize their membership?  

The scale, ubiquity, and systemic nature of rights abuse in supply chains calls for a more bold and innovative use of technology, to transform how workers and their representatives monitor and improve working conditions. Doing so will require applying WEST with greater transparency, inclusivity, and purpose. 

Antoine Heuty is the CEO of Ulula, a worker engagement software and analytics platform.