Sep 23, 2014

How ICTs Can Help Protect Cambodian Laborers

A mobile phone-based quiz is helping Better Factories Cambodia reach out to workers and educate them on their rights.

AsianScientist (Sep. 23, 2014) – By Jerry Redfern & Karen Coates – Cambodia has more mobile phone subscriptions than citizens: 1.34 per person on average, with a total of more than 20 million nationwide, according to UN agency the International Telecommunication Union. Mobile phones are everywhere: from mountain-top temples to paddy fields to the backs of motorbikes zipping through Phnom Penh’s traffic jams. The cell phone does it all: it’s a work tool, a way of communicating, a teaching device, a gizmo and a necessary component of modern life.

And now, the mobile phone is at the heart of a project aimed at educating workers, promoting labor rights and improving communication within Cambodia’s largest export industry: clothes manufacturing.

Kamako Chhnoeum, meaning ‘outstanding worker’ in Khmer, is run by the Better Factories Cambodia initiative, which is part of a global partnership between UN agency the International Labor Organization and the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group. The project uses a software that includes voice response to quiz callers about their health, wages and benefits, and workplace safety, and to survey workers about the factories that employ them. By using the commonplace mobile phone, the project aims to reach many workers, collect information from them and provide information in return.

“We’re still just experimenting,” says Jill Tucker, Better Factories Cambodia’s chief technical advisor.

She calls the project “the tip of the iceberg” in a future full of possibilities for using information and communications technologies (ICTs) to protect labor rights.

After punching in a freephone number, callers hear a short, recorded quiz on labor law in one of three categories they choose: wages and allowances, occupational health and safety, or personal health. Participants are eligible for a prize draw in which mobile phones and rice cookers are on offer.

Incorrect answers are immediately corrected. “Some questions I answered wrong,” a garment factory worker named Srey Pov says after calling for the first time, during a lunch break on a busy Phnom Penh street. She hadn’t realized that the law entitles her to ‘special leave’ to attend a relative’s funeral or wedding. She learned something from the short call. “It’s a good survey,” she says.

“It’s definitely valuable as an educational tool for workers,” says Better Factories Cambodia consultant Maeve Galvin. “But it’s also refining our knowledge of what workers know and what workers don’t know.”

After the quiz, callers are asked to name their factory, comment on their workplace and rate it on a specified issue, such as the ability to take special leave. Eventually, Tucker says, those ratings should help “promote the factories that perform well and maybe drive workers to those factories”.

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