Heather Canon: The ready-made garment industry is the main driver of Bangladesh’s economy. It’s also a place of opportunity for millions of hardworking women and men to make a living, support their families and communities, and proudly represent Bangladesh as its influence grows in the global marketplace.
My career in corporate social responsibility has afforded the opportunityto witness and shape several transformative initiatives to improve the lives of workers. Among those, few have given me more pride and satisfaction than my work with the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety—a landmark, five-year effort to protect garment worker safety in a lasting way, established by leading North American retail brands in the immediate wake of the tragic 2013 Rana Plaza collapse.
In 2014, my team at Laborlink (now part of ELEVATE), was invited to join a working group of Alliance partners including Phulki and the Cahn Group to quickly plan and develop a helpline that could provide workers in Alliance-affiliated factories with the training and means to report emergencies and grievances. Our LaborLinktechnology platform was well suited to the need, but I was apprehensive.
What would make this different than other hotlines, where workers are afraid to call or call about personal issues that can’t be addressed by factories or buyers? How could we establish an effective helpline in a complex industry like ready-made garments? How could we establish trust with workers and local authorities alike? And how could we quickly create impact in a country with the depth and breadth of Bangladesh’s challenges? We decided to be part of the helpline for one reason: amid the challenges lay a tremendous opportunity to do something truly new in the industry, to elevate workers’ voices and fundamentally improve safety in the process. It was a historic opportunity.
In those early discussions among partners, we debated how to fulfil what we now know are the three success factors for an effective grievance mechanism: awareness, accessibility and accountability. We’d need to make sure workers were aware of the helpline through outreach, and capable of using it through an effective training regimen that built trust. The helpline would need to be easily accessible, with on-call operators and a reliable technology system. There would need to be a high degree of accountability built into the service, with clear protocols detailing who would answer calls and how they would handle issues through to resolution.
Within a few months, we launchedAmaderKotha (“Our Voice” in Bangla)—a first-of-its-kind, confidential, 24/7 helpline that enables workers in Alliance-affiliated factories and the broader community to report emergencies and safety concerns, and quickly resolves workplace issues. Like its name suggests, the service is more than just a means of help. It’s a way for workers to have a voice, and a listening ear, for the issues and concerns they experience each day.
Since its founding, the helpline has routinely proven its tremendous value to workers. Potentially deadly fires have been extinguished following the rapid response of the fire brigade, thanks to calls from workers and our operators’ immediate action. Structural cracks in the walls that concerned workers were quickly evaluated by engineers and ruled out as a cause for worry. Instances of withheld pay or abuse by managers were investigated and resolved.
Our usage numbers tell the strongest story of AmaderKotha’svalue to workers, averaging 6,000 to 9,000 calls every month and growing since inception. More than 1,000 factories have been trained on the helpline, nearly 1.5 million workers have access to it, workers have made more than 233,000 calls, and an incredible 80 percent of reported issues have been resolved.
As we reach the end of the Alliance’s five-year tenure and transitioning the helpline’s operations to an independent initiative, it bears reflecting on AmaderKotha’stremendous impact thus far. It has given an outlet to workers who previously had no way of safely and confidentially reporting their concerns from the factory floor. It has partnered with factory management in a way that strengthens their capacity to resolve issues raised by workers. And it has created a blueprint for other countries and industries to follow.
AmaderKotha’simpact is far from over. As it transitions away from the Alliance oversight to that of a new, credible local safety monitoring organization, its founding partners—ELEVATE, the Cahn Group, and Bangladeshi non-profit Phulki—will continue the helpline’s management and make it available to all ready-made garment workers in Bangladesh, not just those in Alliance factories. Hundreds more factories will be trained, millions of more workers will have accesses to the services and support they need, and the Alliance’s original goal of sustainably improving Bangladesh’s garment industry will continue to be fulfilled.
Protecting workers in Bangladesh is a legacy of the impact that I’m grateful to be a part of, and that fills me with great pride. I look forward to expanding this impact into the future.