The Alliance launched a 3rd party worker Helpline – called Amader Kotha (“Our Voice”) – in July 2014. It has been rolled out to 371 factories and will be introduced in the remaining Alliance factories as part of our upcoming fire safety refresher training (to be launched this fall). Since December 2014, we have received 25,256 total calls, of which 2,218 were related to substantive issues (while most of the other calls were informational or test calls made during factory trainings). The top five issues related to safety for both urgent and non-urgent calls are listed in the table below.
The Nepal earthquake in April 2015 accounts for many of the calls received about walls or windows shaking – our remediation team responded by visiting more than 50 factories within 72 hours of the earthquake to assess related damage. For all safety-related calls that come into the Helpline, the operators first inform the factory contact and ensure that workers are safe from immediate danger, then send Alliance engineers to the site if necessary to follow up on the reported issue.
In January, this blog discussed a factory roundtable focused on the factories’ general experiences with the Helpline. As a follow-up, we recently got more insight into one factory’s successes and challenges with the program. The factory (located in Dhaka with roughly 2,250 workers) launched the Helpline in September 2014 through a direct training from our Helpline partner, Phulki. Since then, the Alliance has received 21 total calls from its workers, of which 17 (81%) were substantive in nature.
We spoke with factory management – production, compliance and human resource supervisors in the factory as well as the factory group’s executive compliance director – to learn more about their experience:
What was your initial impression of the Helpline?
Before the Helpline, we did not have open communication with workers, even though buyers were pushing for it. Workers were raising their concerns to the factory Welfare Officer or they submitted anonymously through our suggestion box. But now the use of the suggestion box has reduced significantly as more workers are approaching the Welfare Officer or calling the Helpline. In this way, the Helpline was eye-opening for our managers and we hope it will continue to reduce confusion and suspicion about raising safety issues in the minds of workers.
Did you have any hesitation about launching the Helpline in your factory?
Our management then took the Helpline positively because it puts us in a better position to resolve issues.
Initially, we were wary of information being passed to the Alliance from workers and then immediately to our buyers. However, after learning that the Alliance process included notification of factory management first, we were relieved – our management then took the Helpline positively because it puts us in a better position to resolve issues. Specific cases have also helped us see the benefit of the Helpline. For example, in one of our sister factories, a worker called about a crack in the floor. Alliance engineers came in to inspect and determined that the crack was not critical – this response was useful for management and also put workers at ease.
What has been the worker response to the Helpline?
It seems there is more knowledge about who workers should approach with issues, along with better access to our Welfare Officer. We have not seen any issues affecting production and hope that if we continue to support workers, they will work hard to fulfill targets. Workers have seen activity after calls come in even if they aren’t always directly informed about the result. For the call related to the crack at our sister factory, the findings were supposed to be posted in a public space to alert workers that there was no immediate danger. A Helpline call came in saying that the report had not yet been posted or communicated to the workers, so management made it happen, and our Worker Participation Committee (WPC) was pleased with the quick response.
An Alliance member working with the factory is complimentary of the factory management’s response to the Helpline – whereas some factories have been resistant to continuing with the program after the initial training, this factory has continued to promote it. In fact, they keep Helpline posters in the common areas and even inside women’s toilet stalls so workers can take note of the number without fear of being spotted by their supervisors (see photo at left). In addition, each of the workers has the Helpline number attached to their factory ID cards.
While the factory has been receptive to the Helpline, the Alliance training team also highlighted a few areas of improvement to be made in the coming months. For example, the factory recently had a change in management and the transfer of information has not been ideal – institutional knowledge is only available from the head of executive compliance for the group of which this factory is a part. As such, though the new management is supportive of the Helpline, they were less knowledgeable about the initial training program and past worker complaint procedures. Additionally, while the factory also believes they are now getting more information from workers than before (because workers that were afraid to report something at work can now call during break or from home with no worries), they do not have evidence to support this. So, our team has recommended record-keeping improvements for their internal complaint system. Finally, while all workers have access to the Helpline hotline number, new workers may not fully understand the protocol because it is not included in employee on-boarding.
We are grateful for the willingness of this factory to share their experience and accept recommendations for ways to improve. We also continue to gather feedback from management and Alliance members about the benefits they are seeing – we believe the Helpline can contribute to safety improvements and enhance internal management and communication systems, which will lead to a better environment for workers and support factory efficiency overall.