Global labor markets are complex and rife with power imbalances. We all know the realities of exploited labor – dangerous working conditions, difficult hours, abusive employers, human trafficking and even slavery. But with such complicated systems, where does one begin to create a more humane and fair scenario?
LaborVoices (LV), a new California-based startup social enterprise, aims to place power back into the hands of the worker, starting with information. Using simple mobile technology, LV collects and assembles information directly from migrant workers themselves about employers – think Yelp or GlassDoor – and offers voice-based channels to access the platform. Informed migrant workers will have the first step in place to hold employers and other abusers accountable for their actions.Before a migrant worker even makes the decision to travel to another place to take up a job – usually pursuing better wages and to make a better life for their family – they can use LV’s service to learn more about what they are signing up for, and make better decisions. Moreover, the accessibility of information will also raise awareness about the situation that workers currently face, market-wide.
“Right now, workers depend on their family and friends for their migration information,” says Kohl Gill, LaborVoices founder and CEO. “We’re just connecting these workers to each other, so they can make these important decisions based on their own networks, and other workers’ family and friends, as well. These folks deserve to keep the money they earn. They’re the next middle class!”
Not only do workers need to know whom to trust, but brands are interested, too. The other layer of LV’s service is to analyze and package the data for supply chain managers and the inspection management market. By crowdsourcing inspection, LV hopes to make it easier for these stakeholders to make decisions based on primary sources.
“Many brands are genuinely trying to choose better suppliers, but the current inspection model just doesn’t give them the information they need,” says Kohl. “We want to provide information to brands directly from workers—safely and effectively—to help them stop abuse and prevent abuses before they happen.”
Starting with their current pilot in Bangalore, India, LV offers a real-time service for migrant workers who are seeking answers, trying to make decisions, or have something to say about their workplace.
A champion of labor rights and transparency, Kohl created this model as a result of his past experiences working with the Right to Information Act in India (courtesy Indicorps) and with the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Labor and Corporate Social Responsibility dealing with 22 countries in South Asia and the Middle East (courtesy AAAS). Kohl’s rather untraditional trajectory – from a PhD in physics to anti-corruption work to international diplomacy – brings a fresh perspective with his grounded desire to level the playing field for workers worldwide. While on a trade and labor delegation to Bangladesh, he ran into Kamal Quadir, founder of CellBazaar. Kamal inspired Kohl to think about linking mobile technology, transparent information, and migrant workers. The rest snowballed as Kohl moved to the Bay area and found himself surrounded by champions of social enterprise.
LV is now fully underway and was recently recognized for its innovative model when it won the VatorSplash competition in February 2011. Looking forward, LV is raising capital from investors and donors to expand their work in India and enter other labor markets, such as the US and Vietnam. With the help of his dynamic team, Kohl is eager to harness the talent of people and organizations interested in joining this effort to end labor abuses worldwide, using innovative tools like BetterMeans.
“We want to make this global, building localized business models that work for every part of today’s global supply chains,” says Kohl. “This means gathering local and global expertise in technology, business and law to help out. We want to make it as easy as possible for everyone—from students to professionals—to join us, keep in touch, and pitch in!”
(LaborVoices’ winning 3-minute pitch video is here.)