Creating Sustainable Supply Chains by Listening to Workers

When it comes to media coverage of supply chain worker scandals –those involving human rights and safety breaches – there are plenty of stakeholders expressing their opinions, from consumers to the government.

But whilst it is hugely positive that supply chain ethics are increasingly prominent in the media, the voices of the workers at the centre of the conversation are notably missing from the discussion. No one can argue that supply chain workers’ opinions and observations of what is happening to them and around them on a daily basis aren’t critical if we are to address problems from their foundations. And yet they remain silent; unable to have their say without fear of recrimination or unemployment.

Poorly monitored, convoluted supply chains are the main reason why many workers far down the supply chain have to endure subpar working conditions and gross employer mistreatment. The retailers need and greed for survival and growth can so often be at the expense of the ‘people’ side of the supply chain. Whether it be tea pickers in Sri Lanka, cotton pickers in India or garment workers in Bangladesh, we’ve seen numerous examples of the harsh and inhumane conditions that many workers withstand to produce goods for large Western retailers. What is more, the periodic scandals seemed to cause only temporary embarrassment and short-term changes (usually strategies to repair brand image and loyalty from consumers), but little improvement on the ground.

Until now, that is. With campaigns such as Who Made My Clothes? by Fashion Revolution, big brands are starting to listen and understand that we care about those who produced our products and in what conditions they are produced in. Retailers are beginning to accept the responsibility and obligation they have to every worker within their supply chain.

There is still huge progress to be made. Today, even the most conscientious retailers only tend to visit a tiny proportion of worksites, leaving the principle or sole avenue of worker treatment data to come from top-down management, where there is reason to believe that reports are somewhat suspect or misinformed.

The technology now exists to capture a top-down bottom-up view of the entire supply chain, increasing the visibility of current business practices enabling real-time identification of both risks and opportunities – all via the worker voice at the sharp end.

Gaining a first-hand understanding of the conditions and challenges eliminates distortion of information (from supplier management for example), allowing swift capture of risks before they expand, which strongly highlights the importance and value of genuine engagement with workers.

Each and every individual in the supply chain is central to the achievement of transparency and compliance, to ultimately future proof the supply chain. With tools such as our multi-lingual, easy-to-use Supply Chain Worker Assessment, workers can confidentially and anonymously share their thoughts, feelings and views about their employer and the surroundings in which they work, allowing for regular reviews and improvement.