By Quamrunnessa Babli and S.M. Nurul Azam
In December, we invited Alliance factory representatives to share their experiences with the Alliance Worker Helpline, Amader Kotha. The helpline provides workers a number to call if they want to report safety concerns, with the calls answered by live operators. Since July 2014, the helpline has been introduced to nearly 300 factories through trainings where (1) workers learn when to use the helpline and receive materials with the helpline number, and (2) factories provide internal contacts that helpline representatives call if issues are reported from their factory. When we first launched, some factories were not eager to participate – though many supported the use of the helpline for safety issues, they were also concerned that workers might abuse it to report other concerns (or even false allegations). Five months and 6,000+ calls later, we invited factories back into the Alliance office to give us their feedback on the helpline, both the good and the bad. Here are some key findings that came out of that conversation.
The Alliance Worker Helpline provides workers with a reliable 3rd-party reporting channel that allows them to report safety issues anonymously so that they can be addressed in a timely manner. While the helpline was established to focus on safety, we accept and respond to all concerns, which is important to building trust. The helpline is operated by Clear Voice, Phulki, and Good World Solutions.
What has been your experience with the helpline? A few factory representatives recalled how they were initially skeptical of the helpline. Some factories already had internal hotlines and other grievance systems, and they weren’t convinced that the helpline would help. Others were worried that call information (validated or not) might be passed on to their buyers. Still others welcomed the helpline from the beginning, recognizing that it was important for the industry – and that if issues surfaced at their factories it only meant that they had more opportunity to fix them. Regardless of their initial attitudes, factory representatives agreed that the helpline was good for workers and safety, and they quickly moved on to talk about the advantages they’d seen in their factories so far.
Is the helpline improving safety in factories? We heard factory representatives discuss some benefits we were hoping to hear, and others we hadn’t expected. A representative of Denimac Limited talked about how the helpline had contributed to internal accountability for safety: “Earlier, supervisors or charge-level staff would keep garments anywhere on the production floors, even if they were blocking aisles or exits. But now, due to the helpline, their mentality has totally changed. Whenever they are facing problems with excess cartons or garments, they are coming to factory management for proper storage of excess goods. This is a big change that has happened for our factory – and we are very interested in starting the same helpline at the other five factories within our factory group!” Others said that, because they couldn’t possibly be everywhere in the factory at once, they saw value in the helpline allowing workers to serve as their eyes and ears. One representative also remarked that workers are lucky to be in the “Post-Rana Plaza Era” and to have received helpline cards as they feel safer knowing that they have a real channel to raise their concerns.
How does the helpline impact internal factory communication and action? Factory representatives had a lot to say about how the helpline had directly and indirectly helped to improve communication within the factory:
“For any fire safety issues we are getting direct complaints. Workers are also sharing other problems, which they did not do before.” – Energypac Fashions Ltd.
- When individual calls come in, one factory shares information over the PA system so that all workers are aware of the issue or question, as well as the response.
- Senior-level management is now finding out about issues earlier, as workers can call the helpline if they don’t get a positive response from their immediate supervisors.
- The introduction of the helpline presents an opportunity to remind workers of and encourage them to use internal channels – and to use the helpline if they are not getting results.
- Several factory managers talked about how the helpline’s presence has improved the overall working environment. Supervisors and others are shouting less because they know that workers could call the helpline, and that those calls would be immediately communicated to the top level factory management.
- Supervisors are now more receptive and positive in listening to the problems and complaints of the workers, and trying to resolve them.
How can we improve? Factories voiced the importance of needing to avoid false calls but as a vote of support, participants requested more helpline cards and expressed interest in expanding the helpline to factories where it’s not required. We do take measures to screen for false calls and try to verify caller information through other channels.
We are grateful for the factory representatives that provided feedback to us both during and after the December meeting. More importantly, we’re seeing that the helpline is leading to safety-related and other improvements, and we’re grateful to the factories that supported this initiative in its early stages – and to the workers that have been willing to call.