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Cellphones are good for more than sending emoji-riddled missives. With penetration rates approaching 90 percent in most developing countries, apparel brands are increasingly turning to mobile technology to get an unfiltered, real-time look at their supply chains. The two services currently on the market, Labor Link and LaborVoices, are similar in scope and execution. Workers only have to call toll-free numbers and answer simple prerecorded questions, using the digits on their keypads to indicate “yes” or “no.” They can also ring the same numbers to anonymously report child labor, harassment and abuse, safety violations, and other grievances. “The system gets around many of the limitations of traditional audits, which are slow, occasional, and may be inaccurate because workers are afraid,” Ayush Khanna, a LaborVoices director, told the Thomson-Reuters Foundation.

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LaborVoices bills itself as an “early warning system,” one that allows apparel brands to flag any potential issues in their supply chain before they take a critical turn.

Despite calls for greater transparency and improved safety for workers, particularly in the wake of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, progress has been sluggish.

Despite calls for greater transparency and improved safety for workers, progress has been sluggish.

Khanna notes that the 5,239 workers who called LaborVoices in the first half of 2016 worked in factories in Dhaka and Chittagong that manufactured clothing for more than 30 multinational labels, including Adidas, Levi Strauss H&M, and Zara.

Likewise, Labor Link has reached more than 500,000 workers in 16 countries, the organization says.

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But even technology has its limitations.

“Calls from workers is a good system to have, but it is not a substitute for audits and checks,” said Sarah Labowitz, co-director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. “You need both to tackle the issues in the supply chain.”

+ Thomson-Reuters Foundation