Marks & Spencer is to use mobile phone technology to find out about working conditions directly from those producing its clothing in Asian factories.
The high street retailer has signed a deal with Good World Solutions, a non-profit social enterprise, to carry out research via mobiles in a way suitable for workers who may not be able to read or write. The survey will cover 22,500 workers in 30 factories in India, Sri Lanka and Bangaldesh and could be extended to more factories over time.
Fiona Sadler, head of ethical sourcing for M&S, said factory owners will be fully informed, but the surveys will be carried out anonymously, rather than under the direction of bosses. The system has been tested on 2,000 workers in India and Sri Lanka over the past year.
M&S's project is part of a growing movement by retailers towards the use of mobile phones and social networking to provide greater insight into the lives of those producing goods in far-flung factories. It comes after a series of high-profile disasters at factories overseas including the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh where more than 1,000 workers died.
In May, the sports brand Adidas began testing a system which allowed a number of its factories in Indonesia to detect issues of concern for workers via SMS texts. At the same time Walmart collaborated with start-up LaborVoices on a project to get information from workers in 279 factories supplying the giant US retailer via its network of mobile users who are also able to warn fellow workers about dangerous or abusive factory employers.
Workers' rights campaigners gave a cautious welcome to the idea. "Involving workers themselves in monitoring conditions in supplier factories is vital, but workers need to be involved not only in identifying problems but in negotiating the solutions. The best way to do this is through allowing workers to form and join independent trade unions," said Sam Maher, a campaigner with Labour Behind the Label.
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