LaborVoices: Bringing Transparency to
the Global Supply Chain
Ronald M. Roman, San José State University
Anne T. Lawrence, San José State University
he Karnataka State Bus swerved sharply on the highway to Bangalore, India.
It was 2 a.m. local time, but Kohl Gill, who had flown to India from San
Francisco by way of Newark, Frankfurt, Ahmedabad, and Mumbai, had not
yet adjusted to the new time zone and was wide awake in the sleeper bus. All around,
on this summer night in 2010, the lights of the fast-growing city of eight million—a
hotbed of entrepreneurialism and a center of the South Asian garment industry—
sprawled over a wide area. Gill had travelled to Bangalore on a mission. A physicist,
policy expert, and human rights activist, the thirty-four-year old Californian dreamed
of establishing a technology-enabled social enterprise called LaborVoices to bring
transparency to the global supply chain. Now, as the bus slowed, he allowed his mind
to imagine what his efforts, and those of his partners, might make possible.
Gill closed his eyes and imagined a young woman walking out of a garment factory
at the end of her shift on a mild early evening.
This young woman, like many others, had come to Bangalore from a rural area in
southeastern India in search of a job. She had succeeded—she was now employed as a
sewing machine operator in a large factory that produced fashionable, branded clothing for export. But much about her situation still confused her, including if her wages
and working hours were fair.
She quickly walked down the narrow lane leading to the bus stop. Ahead, she noticed
a large group of factory workers congregated around a rickshaw that had parked on the
side of the road. A woman was talking into a microphone, her voice amplified through
a loudspeaker that had been mounted on top of the vehicle. “Do you know your rights?
Do you know who to complain to if you have a problem? Give us a call. It’s free.” As the
young garment worker passed by, a man handed her a flyer.
Later, settling into her seat on the bus, she pulled out the flyer and began to read. It was
written in Kannada, her native language, and seemed to be advertising some kind of
a service offered by a workers’ rights organization. Apparently, garment workers could
access this service by calling a number, free of charge. Since she had nothing else to do
on the forty-five-minute ride to the hostel where she was staying, she pulled out her
mobile phone and punched in the number. She did not have many possessions, but she
Copyright © 2014 by the Case Research Journal and by and the authors; all rights reserved. An earlier
version of this case was presented at the October, 2012 annual meeting of the North American Case
Research Association (NACRA). The authors wish to thank Kohl Gill, Deborah Ettington, and three
anonymous reviewers for their assistance in the preparation of this case. The case, which is not disguised,
is not intended to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of an administrative situation.
LaborVoices: Bringing Transparency to the Global Supply Chain
did have a mobile phone—something she considered an absolute necessity to keep in
touch with her parents and siblings back home.
“Welcome to LV-Connect,” said a female recorded voice, speaking in Kannada. The voice
offered options to listen to recorded information on workers’ rights and to participate
in a short survey. Selecting the option to listen to information on workers’ rights, she
was surprised to hear that according to the law, workers were supposed to be paid twice
their normal wages for overtime. “That rule definitely doesn’t get followed in our factory!” she muttered. The voice also provided information about minimum wages and
rights to unionize.
Out of curiosity, she then accessed the survey, which asked questions about her wages,
hours, and overtime which she could answer by punching in numbers on her phone.
This was followed by several open-ended questions. “Have you heard of any instances
of abuse or harassment in your factory?” the voice asked politely, followed by a beep.
Startled, she had to think for a moment. Could they trace it back to her? No, she
decided. After all, she had not provided her name. She took a deep breath and started
talking into her phone.
A few hours later, five activists gathered around a table in their cramped office. “We
got a lot of responses to our survey today,” remarked one. “And we got two complaints
about that manager at A1 Exports—on top of the seven complaints we’ve already had
on that same guy. I will prepare a report this evening.”
Meanwhile, halfway around the world in Sweden, an employee in the office of corporate social responsibility at a global clothing retailer noted an email when she scanned
her inbox the next morning. “Possible excessive and improperly compensated overtime
at the A1 Export factory in Bangalore,” it read. She picked up her phone to call a
colleague in the procurement department. “I’m noticing a connection between our
rush orders and the number of overtime complaints coming in from workers in Bangalore. Some of them are pretty serious. Let’s see if we can’t do something about our
lead times.” The email continued: “Possible cluster of harassment complaints.” The
employee frowned. Many of the global clothing retailer’s young female customers were
sensitive to that issue, and complaints from activists could spread quickly.
Gill’s reverie was interrupted by the driver asking the passengers to prepare for their
final stop in Bangalore. Kohl straightened up from his bunk and checked his luggage.
Gill had taken a critical step by travelling to Bangalore. Now, he faced the challenge of making his dream a reality. What business model would be most effective for
the fledgling LaborVoices? Could he find a reliable source of revenue? What skills and
capabilities could he bring to the venture? What partnerships did he need to build?
Could his efforts actually improve the lives of garment workers like the young woman
he so vividly imagined?
Kulvinder “Kohl” Singh Gill, the sixth of seven children, was born in 1976 in rural
northern Mississippi to parents who had emigrated from the Punjab state in India.
His mother was a nurse, and his father was a laborer at a local scrap yard, where he
would find and bring home machine and electronic parts for his children to tinker
with. As a boy, Gill attended the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, a
public school for students who excelled in these disciplines. This preparation led him
to the California Institute of Technology, also known as Caltech, where he studied
semiconductor physics as a scholarship student. In college, Gill realized he wanted to
Case Research Journal • Volume 34 • Issue 4 • Fall 2014
use his training to work in science policy, believing he could have a greater impact in
government service than in a research laboratory. He went on to earn a doctorate in
physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2005, with the intention of
pursuing a career in science policy.
After graduation, Gill became an Indicorps Fellow. Indicorps recruited diaspora
Indians—persons of Indian descent no longer living in that country—to return to
India temporarily to aid its development. During his fellowship year, Gill worked as a
paralegal in slum areas of Delhi, where he helped residents fight corruption, which was
rampant in the country. India’s parliament had recently passed the Right to Information Act of 2005. This law allowed individuals to ask government officials for public
information; officials who did not comply were subject to penalties. Gill’s office was
able to use this law to help citizens avoid paying bribes to facilitate routine transactions.
We would use this new law, and people’s lives would radically change. You are talking
about people who were living on a hand-to-mouth basis. They are living partially on
subsidized food and supplies provided by the government. If something happened and
they lost the equivalent of their social security card, it would cost them thousands of
rupees to replace it. There is no official government fee; it was all because of corruption. This was a devastating system for them. We would go with them or send a note
with them to the government office and once the government officer saw the note, they
would know the gig was up. They would have to provide the services straight away. The
core of that law was transparency.
His experiences fighting corruption in India led Gill to reflect deeply about the
power of transparency. He recalled:
I was thinking a lot about the philosophical implications of this. What does transparency mean? How broadly can we apply it? What else can we use transparency to do?
The more I thought about it, the more transparency won the day for me as a personal
philosophy and goal to strive for.
Labor Standards in U.S. Trade Agreements
While in India, Gill applied for and received a fellowship at the Department of Energy
in Washington, D.C., where he examined the efficacy of science policy. After eighteen
months in that position, in 2008 he accepted a fellowship at the U.S. Department
of State. There, he worked in the labor office of the human rights bureau, focusing
on labor rights, corporate social responsibility, and Internet freedom. He was placed
in charge of the South Asia region. At the State Department, Gill worked with a
wide variety of labor groups, including grassroots organizations, international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), in-country suppliers, and major multinational
A key activity of the State Department, Gill learned, was executing and monitoring trade agreements. Most included provisions mandating fair working conditions,
and the State Department had responsibility for investigating allegations of improper
practices in factories in countries with which the United States had trade agreements.
In carrying out these investigations, Gill was frequently frustrated. Often, the best
information he could get was from reports written by nongovernmental organizations
or audits conducted by third-party vendors. The data was typically at least several
months old. When confronted with possible problems, the factory managers would
LaborVoices: Bringing Transparency to the Global Supply Chain
insist that everything had been addressed since the auditors had visited. Clearly, lack
of timeliness was a problem.
Gill also spoke with representatives of what he called “the brands”—companies
that were sourcing branded goods from countries covered by these trade agreements.
Many complained that they found it difficult to know exactly what was going on in
their supply chains, even if they carried out audits or hired others to do so. The companies often had to wait three to six months after factories were audited to receive the
results, and even then, the audits were only a snapshot of conditions at one point in
time. Some company representatives said they had little confidence in the audits. They
had heard stories about inspectors arriving at half-empty factories, where it appeared
that underage workers and anyone who might have complained about conditions had
been sent home before they arrived. At the same time, the companies told Gill they
wanted to do better. They especially wanted to support best-in-class suppliers which
they had spent a lot of time training.
Gill’s work for the State Department also took him back to South Asia, where he
researched labor conditions by talking directly with factory workers. He recalled several conversations with workers in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh:
I wanted to know why the workers did not protest or switch jobs if their working
conditions were not acceptable. What they told me was that they were afraid to speak
out, because they might be blacklisted. Often, they didn’t know what other jobs were
available. The workers’ answers indicated both fear and a lack of knowledge about other
employment opportunities. They felt that other factories probably treated workers the
same way, so it wouldn’t make any difference if they switched employers. I thought
to myself that the key problem here was the workers’ lack of information. And they
weren’t the only ones who lacked information—often even the factories’ owners did
not know what their managers were doing. I thought to myself, if we could use technology to bring transparency to this situation, a lot of exciting things could happen.
Mobile Technology and Labor Rights
In his factory visits, Gill observed that almost all the workers had mobile phones.
This planted a seed to which he would later return. During his final months at the
State Department, Gill wrote a thought piece titled, “Mobile Technology and Labor
Rights,” outlining how mobile phones could be used to advance transparency in supply chains. He began his essay with a story that illustrated just how poorly immigrant
workers often were informed:
Consider a worker preparing to migrate to a distant factory. She has heard that the
wage in the factory is a good one, and that there is a representative union to defend
her interests. She has heard that there are suitable living and dining facilities and other
service providers, available at a reasonable cost. She has heard that a particular labor
broker will arrange for her to travel to this factory to work, for a large fee that is manageable because of the factory wage she is quoted. And finally, if the situation turns out
not to be acceptable, she has heard that she can leave any time she likes.
In practice, such a worker often finds that none of these facts are true. She is not paid
well, or on time. She is either not represented by any union, or the union is corrupt
and doesn’t represent the workers’ interests. Her living and dining facilities are poor or
non-existent, or are owned by the employer in a “company store” situation. Her takehome pay is so small as to double the time she will be in debt to the labor broker. In
some situations her documentation is confiscated, holding her in virtual captivity. This
Case Research Journal • Volume 34 • Issue 4 • Fall 2014
worker is especially vulnerable because she must rely on a very poor set of information
Mobile phone technology, Gill argued, could help workers get the information
they needed to make good choices. The use of cell phones had exploded in South Asia;
by 2009, 525 million Indians had wireless phone service (out of a total population
of 1.2 billion).1 Already cell phones had been put to use in many places to make life
better for ordinary people. For example, in his travels in South Asia, Gill had become
aware of a company called CellBazaar, sometimes called the “Craigslist of Bangladesh.” CellBazaar provided a platform for buyers and sellers of all kinds to connect
with one another using text messages on their mobile phones. Launched in 2006,
the startup had quickly attracted millions of users and had significantly driven down
transaction costs in many markets, from agricultural commodities to school tutoring.
Another company he had learned about was babajob.com, an Indian firm that used
a mobile platform to help employers and job seekers find each other, using voice and
Gill believed that mobile phones could be used to collect information from factory workers, using a crowdsourcing model. Crowdsourcing was similar to outsourcing,
in that individuals outside the organization were tapped to solve a problem, provide
information, or supply a service. Unlike outsourcing, however, those performing the
crowdsourced activity were not a centrally-organized group, but rather a distributed
group, referred to as “the crowd.” For example, the mobile application Waze gathered
real-time information from drivers on the road—the crowd—to provide up-to-the
minute traffic guidance and navigational aids to other users. Similarly, Gill argued,
mobile technology could be used to gather information from workers and then “push
it out into the world” to help others. “With greater access to accurate information,”
Gill wrote about his illustrative worker, “she could make more informed choices. Such
access to information would, in the long run, force employers, unions, and service
providers to compete for workers, rather than the other way around.”
Gill thought using mobile technology to crowdsource valuable intelligence from
workers might benefit not only workers, but also the supplier factories, the brands,
and consumers. He reflected:
Everyone deserves a chance to find decent work, and to find that work, workers need
to know the reputations of employers. Workers may not have many choices individually, but they can each contribute to painting an accurate picture of their employers.
Enough worker opinions would yield reliable reputations of employers, helping future
workers find decent work, and avoid trafficking and other labor abuses. More than simply steering workers toward better jobs, this intelligence could also steer multinational
brands toward better suppliers, and steer consumers toward better products.
Gill distributed his essay widely within the State Department and beyond. He
had initially conceived of a project that would be started with government funding.
Although many people were enthusiastic about his idea, most thought it should be
pursued outside of government.
Gill’s contract position at the State Department ended in 2009, and he moved back
to California, joining some family members in the San Francisco Bay Area. He began
looking for jobs in the energy industry, government, and social investing, but his
LaborVoices: Bringing Transparency to the Global Supply Chain
“heart wasn’t in it,” he recalled. Instead, he kept thinking about the concept outlined
in his essay—which he had begun calling “The Idea.” Gill recalled:
I’d been sensing more and more of a business opportunity. I knew that The Idea was
compelling, and that no one was doing it already. I also knew that it was potentially
lucrative, if only to displace in-person inspections. What pushed me over the edge, I
guess, was that someone else could try to do it, while I was just thinking about it. In the
wrong hands, this model could actually hurt workers, instead of helping them.
Gill began reaching out to contacts in the social enterprise community, including
people at Omidyar Network, the Skoll Foundation, Humanity United, and Benetech.
Nearly everywhere he went, he was encouraged to launch “The Idea” as a business,
possibly as an experiment for a year. A friend at Benetech advised him to incorporate
as a C corporation, both in order to limit his own liability and to open the possibility
of bringing in investors at a later time. He discarded the idea of becoming a nonprofit.
I was familiar with nonprofits. In fact, I was running the board meetings of ICA [Indians for Collective Action] at the time. I was concerned about being governed by a
board of directors that did not have the deep background I had in the subject. Also, I
saw the potential for this to have an eventual financial payoff, and I thought that I—
and any other team members—should be able to realize a part of that.
Gill’s partner, Maura, was supportive, pointing out that he had savings that could carry
him over for a time. So were other friends and colleagues. Gill recounted:
A few weeks later, I confessed my biggest fears over dinner with a close friend. When
he asked what I was so scared of, I talked about the prospect of screwing up, of failing
to meet payroll, and having to lay people off. He showed me how ridiculous it was to
worry about that at such an early ...
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