2016 was the year retail got bruised. From Sports Direct to Ivy Park, ethicality was brought to the fore in some of the most public and shocking accusations of modern slavery for many years.
Behind each of these scandals is a dangerous lack of knowledge about the factories producing these consumer goods, and more importantly little communication with the factory workers on a micro level. The factories are often continents away from the point of sale and company headquarters, which means it's out of sight and out of mind for many brand decision makers. After all, if you've got an audit from the factory showing 100% ethical compliancy - why would you question it?
Think again. Factory audits can be falsified, production can be outsourced, numbers can be tweaked and paper surveys of workers can be tiresome to collate. Historically, it's been hard for ethically minded suppliers to find effective ways to gain honest, relevant and open feedback from workers in their supply chain as working norms are not universally open and transparent. To make matters worse a recent CIPS survey found that many supply chain managers are unaware of the Modern Slavery Act's existence, a new law requiring large UK businesses to report efforts to address the risks of slavery and human trafficking. So, what's the solution?
Cue social media, a democratising tool used by people the world over. Communication platforms on social media are bridging the geographical distance and allowing people to communicate internationally. Reflecting the theory that happy workers make a happy and prosperous business, NGOs and businesses are beginning to collaborate on wider social and ethical programmes using instant messaging apps as the springboard to action. We recently launched a new WeChat service, MatrixChat, that combines our ethical objectives with social media and technology to provide support to workers and retrieve meaningful insights into welfare and working conditions in real time.
In China, where Matrix's partner factories are based, 80% of workers use WeChat to communicate with personal networks. So, it made complete sense to use it as a platform from which to engage with workers. Some brands are using the platform for sales and marketing, but not yet to access worker feedback. WeChat can be used as a home for mini sites for workers' use. Via the mini site, MatrixChat, workers can post their concerns and log everything from quality of life and satisfaction statistics to making workplace requests for small things like communal wifi. The transparent communication can then be shared with factory managers to help them hear workers' voices and understand how they can improve their lives to ensure they feel better at work and are able do a better job in the long run.
Information, education and inspiration
As a worker tool, MatrixChat will also serve as a learning, news and product gallery hub, giving workers the chance to learn about everything from relevant regulation changes, to seeing images of the products they helped to create on the shop floor. This will help communicate the impact of their work and, in turn, could create a higher sense of self-worth and job satisfaction. We've also taken steps to help migrant workers settle in and feel secure in their day to day lives through future partnerships with local NGOs and institutions. Together, we can offer support and advice via WeChat on worker welfare issues and emotional subjects like remote parenting of left behind children.
Ethical and social programmes offered on messaging platforms could revolutionise engagement with factory workers meaning factory floor exposés of the same ilk as Sports Direct and Ivy Park could become a thing of the past. Open communication and access to information will inspire and motivate workers, while consumer goods brands that make the necessary improvements to their supply chains stand to gain from the increased productivity of a happier and stable workforce.
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