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Workers of the World, Call Us

“We don’t get water all the time. Especially from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m., we do not get enough water.”

This is the kind of feedback Kohl Gill (2006-08 Executive Branch Fellow at Department of Energy; 2008-09 at Department of State) gets from factory workers who use his company’s SmartLine service. LaborVoices enables global brands to maintain safety standards and decent working conditions in their supply chain by empowering workers to provide feedback and voice grievances 24/7 through their mobile phones.

The simple yet powerful idea came to Gill as a fellow at the State Department. Serving as s a South Asia desk officer, he helped write the labor rights section of the Annual Human Rights Reports for eight South Asian countries. On a labor rights delegation he led to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, he observed workers in action and noticed their mobile phones.

“I’m a big fan of crowd-sourced transparency. There’s a concept called sousveillance where you tap the collective intelligence of a population to create a check on the power of institutions,” explained Gill. “You’ve got all these workers who may or may not have access to a union or human resources staff, so individually they’re quite powerless. But if we can string together all of their observations, we’ve got a shot at creating a real-time picture from the workers’ perspective of how a factory is doing on things like working conditions.”

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Workers use their phones to weigh in anonymously. | LaborVoices, Inc.

He circulated a thought piece on the idea hoping that someone would run with it, but failed to attract sufficient interest at USAID or the Departments of State or Labor. So after his fellowship, Gill decided reluctantly to take it on himself: “My father started several companies and none of them succeeded,” he explained, “So I really did not want to start my own company.”

But, start he did. Seeded with personal funds and support from friends and family, he landed his first customer two years after launching in 2010. “We operated leanly in the first couple of years, without even any salaries,” said Gill. “People were working on sweat equity.” Thriving now, his company is operating in seven countries and has 11 employees.

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Kohl Gill spoke about his fellowship at the 2015 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, CA.

How it works

Workers attend a workshop where they receive the LaborVoices phone number. Callers navigate through a menu of options using an interactive voice response system. They are asked a series of questions on areas including health, safety, and child labor. They can also call in to hear information about their rights and local services, or leave an anonymous message about a grievance.

“We don’t ask for names,” Gill added. “A user’s identifying phone number is held in trust by LaborVoices – even clients don’t get access to that.”

LaborVoices, Inc.

Launched 2010
First customer 2012
Employees 6 FT, 5 PT
Countries of operation 7
Workers affected 10,000

 

Looking into the future

“I’d like to build a company that lives up to its mission and can last beyond me. Then, I can imagine myself doing something else,” Gill said. “I’d be interested in looking at policy issues beyond labor. There are a couple of different routes. I’ve been interested in politics for a long time – that’s part of what got me into the STPF program.”

For now, Gill is busy managing the recent expansion of LaborVoices, building on its initial successes. Clearly, following in his father’s footsteps wasn’t a bad idea after all.