Mobile Phone Technology: Transforming Lives Through Access to Information


Almost every garment worker owns a mobile phone. In Asia, Better Work is finding ways of using this new technology to bring important information to their fingertips.

Before she owned a smartphone, Kit Sopheak lived in an information blackout. She went to work; she went home. Now and again, if she was lucky, details about health benefits or a new rule on overtime at the factory where she works would trickle down to her, passed from friend to friend. But for the most part, she missed out on important information and announcements that directly affected her.

We just transferred information about work to each other like that, person by person, says Sopheak, 27, who spends her days making button plackets for garments.

Or, there are announcements that get posted to the wall at the factory. But we don’t have time to go stand and read it.

That telephone-tree method of information sharing is rapidly under transformation in Cambodia and elsewhere as mobile phone technology supplants slower and less effective means of communicating. A growing number of workers like Sopheak are scrimping to save enough to buy a smartphone—a month’s salary for most factory workers—in order to access information on their own. “I kept hearing other people get information from the Internet, so I was thinking, ‘I want to have knowledge, too,’” Sopheak said. “I don’t have much of an education but I want to improve my knowledge. Now I use Facebook to learn.”

The Better Work programmes in Asia are seizing the opportunity that comes with workers having smart phones and other cell phone through worker education initiatives in Indonesia and Cambodia.

Jill Tucker, Chief Technical Adviser for Better Factories Cambodia (BFC), says their mobile phone project is changing that, allowing the organization to reach more workers, and faster.
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The project, called “Kamako Chhnoeum,” or “Outstanding Worker” is a call-in voice response system that educates factory workers about labour rights by testing their knowledge via a multiple choice quiz on one of three topics—wages and allowances, personal health and occupational safety and health. The second part of the quiz is an open call for information and allows workers to name the factory where they work and provide a piece of information about conditions there.

Since launching, an average of 1,000 – 2,000 users per month have called the hotline, with nearly 15,000 workers calling in March 2014 when BFC commissioned a radio spot advertising the initiative. Tucker’s team are now developing a rating system in which workers will be able to score their factories according to a number of indexes, such as wages, benefits, and occupational safety and health, and this information will be disseminated back to workers through the IVR system.
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Through Kamako Chhnoeum we can disseminate the workers’ own ratings so that they can make choices about where they want to work, – Tucker says.

Empowering workers through mobile phone technology has proven successful in Indonesia, where BFC’s sister programme, Better Work Indonesia (BWI), has successfully rolled out a series of apps that help close the gap on ineffective communications between factory managers and workers, as well as providing workers practical information and tools that can be immediately applied to their lives.

A chronic challenge among Indonesia’s factories was an ineffective communication system, says Simon Field, Chief Technical Adviser for BWI. Supervisors routinely posted notices on bulletin boards or used a bullhorn to make announcements. More common, workers received information via face-to-face interaction with their bosses. But critical information wasn’t reaching workers.

Workers were saying, ‘We’re not aware we’re entitled to that leave or didn’t know health insurance covers this or that,’” says Field. “Our focus was on fixing the communications system within the workplace and strengthening workers’ organizations to better engage with theirs membership.

Apps launched in Indonesia now allow workers to access information related to their wages, rights and benefits, as well as issues related to occupational safety and health, Field says.

They key is tailoring information to the workers’ needs, – Field says.

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For workers like Sopheak, it’s hard to know what kind of information she needs when she isn’t aware of what kind of information is available about her factory. But that’s where the Better Work mobile phone technology programmes have the greatest potential to help, Sopheak says. For example, knowing what kind of health benefits or holidays she is entitled to, or how her salary compares with what her peers earn in other factories, will help Sopheak know if a trip to the doctor when she is sick is covered by her employer, or if she and her colleagues should ask for a raise.

I want to understand what’s happening in society and I want to know what’s happening in my own factory, – Sopheak says.

Having information will help me improve my life.