Mobile phones for labour rights

, Chief Technical Advisor, Better Factories Cambodia project

All over the world, mobile phones are being used to transform lives.  From health surveillance in Peru, to disaster relief in Haiti, to election monitoring in Nigeria and assistance to farmers in several countries. Mobile phones are being used to overcome barriers of participation by connecting people, sharing information and disseminating knowledge.

So when I arrived in Cambodia in 2011 to work with the ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) project, I asked myself:Why aren’t we using mobile phones in labour rights?”  I was determined to explore the use of mobile phones by workers and to see if this technology could be used to advance their rights.

Mobile phone usage in Cambodia:

Shortly after my arrival it became clear that virtually all 450,000 workers in Cambodian garment-factories own at least a simple mobile phone. The prevalence of mobile phones in Cambodia far exceeds the prevalence of land lines. According to Indochina Research, in 2013, 62 per cent of Cambodians own mobile phones, while only 2 per cent own smart phones. Due to illiteracy, low education levels and the fact that the Khmer Unicode is not available on many inexpensive phones, workers generally do not use their phones for texting, but rather calling.  This meant that a program to communicate with workers would need to use an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system.

Using mobile phones for social good:

With this in mind, my colleagues and I set about to develop a program that would enable two-way communication between BFC and workers.

Better Factories Cambodia monitors factories, trains management and workers, and provides guidance and advice on factory improvements that help enterprises preserve profits while respecting workers’ rights.

BFC would deliver information about the labor law and personal health, and workers would be able to provide information to BFC about working conditions in their factories.  This effort, called KamakoChhnoeum in Khmer, or Outstanding Worker, was launched in September 2013. Workers on three of the largest Cambodian phone networks can call the same 4-digit code for free, and take a short labour-law focused quiz that will help them to enrich their knowledge about labour rights, occupational safety and health, and personal health.  By tallying “right” and “wrong” answers, BFC also gains another window into what workers know about their rights and personal health, and what they still need to learn.

When workers call short code 8397 they are asked to choose between three topic options: wages and allowances, occupational safety and health, or personal health. Once the worker selects a topic,  they are led through a short quiz that they answer by pressing the appropriate numbers on their phone. After each question, the IVR system will explain whether the worker has answered the question correctly or not, and provides the correct answer. At the end of the quiz, workers are asked to identify the factory they work in, and they can record a comment regarding their workplace.

Results of KamakoChhnoeum:

We have been delighted to find that even before launching a comprehensive marketing program through radio announcements, posters, and wallet cards, workers have been excited about calling in.  Within the first two months of the program, 3245 callers phoned KamakoChhnoeum.  We are still in the very early days of the program, but we have found that while many workers know the basics of the labor law, their knowledge is lacking in some areas.  For example, many workers do not understand that they are not legally eligible to be paid their wages during strike days.  Many workers also do not understand that they are eligible to take unpaid maternity leave even before the 1-year period when such leave must be compensated.  We are also learning that some individual factories may have challenges that need to be explored through BFC’s regular factory monitoring program.

The labour law app can be downloaded for free through the iPhone & Android stores under Better Factories Cambodia.

In addition to launching KamakoChhnoeum that is aimed at workers, we at BFC have also created a labour law app that operates on smart phones and targets factory management, students, academics, Corporate Social Responsibility practitioners, and others involved in labour rights in Cambodia.

Since 2005, BFC has printed a Guide to the Cambodia Labour Law in three languages: English, Chinese and Khmer. Unfortunately, as the labour law is updated, it is difficult and expensive to update our printed copies.  Making the guide available electronically allows us to update the law at any time.  In addition, we have been able to make the guide interactive as it includes a quiz after each chapter, photos of good and bad practices, and a calculator so that workers can calculate their maternity leave payment.

 So far, users of the app seem to like it very much.  After we introduced brands to the app, Mr. Lary Brown, the head of Global Sourcing Compliance for the Esprit brand wrote to say: “Found it. Used it. Love it!” We hope that by bringing the labour law to the fingertips of students, academics, factory management, unions and others who work in the industry, this application can increase knowledge of key areas of the law and help to improve compliance in the industry.

We have also been very fortunate to have received funding from the Walt Disney Company to support BFC as we hold a meeting in 2014 to promote mobile phone technology for labor rights.  A few other organizations have similar programs to BFC’s, and we are eager to gather all the practitioners to share lessons learned, insights, and new strategies.

Mobile phone blog pic

62 per cent of Cambodians own mobile phones, making the KamakoChhnoeum service useful for factory workers who can use their phones to access the service.

We at BFC are excited at the possibilities that exist within the ILO to use mobile phone apps more widely.  We would love to see all the ILO Conventions converted into app form, updating them with the names of all the signatory countries.  And we know that many other ILO projects – especially those addressing the needs of migrant workers – could benefit from this widely used technology.  As far as we can tell, the sky is the limit!

The labour law app can be downloaded for free through the iPhone and Android stores.  Search under Better Factories Cambodia, Cambodia Labour Law, or a similar combination, to download the app.  Please help us by downloading it now!

3 thoughts on “Mobile phones for labour rights

  1. Pingback: Mobile App Brings Cambodian Labour Law to Users’ Fingertips « Better Work

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