Worker hotlines Q&A
More than two years ago, the adidas Group engaged independent Chinese NGOs to act as contact points for workers employed in the adidas Group supply chain. China Labour Support Network (CLSN) launched their hotline in 2008, and Handshake - a newly formed NGO in southern China - launched the second hotline in 2010. Workers from more than 400 employers (including directly and indirectly sourced factories) have access to these hotlines.
Derek Wang is a Senior SEA Compliance Manager based in our local office in Guangzhou, China, and he looks after the worker hotlines. Here he explains the importance of the hotlines for understanding the scope of non-compliances and helping workers.
Q: How do you feel worker hotlines help the adidas Group to protect the rights of workers?
A: The hotlines provide us with an opportunity to have the workers equipped with the knowledge of the law and health and safety so that they are aware of their rights and the right way to protect themselves from risks in the workplace. We can intervene when there are conflicts between the workers and management. The hotlines create a platform for workers to discuss solutions before pursuing legal action against a factory. We also guide the factory management with remediation plans to improve the internal grievance systems for handling individual cases, to mitigate the risk of conflicts and to prevent reoccurrence.
Q: How do you safeguard the workers against retaliation when they bring grievances forward to the hotline?
A: A confidential agreement was signed with the service providers. Workers' privacy must be protected. Workers can choose either anonymous reporting or to leave their details with the hotline service provider. When publicly reporting complaints, we remove specific details to protect the complainant.
Q: Can you list the most frequent grievances brought forward by the workers?
A: More than 60% are labour rights infringements such as excessive working hours, wage payment and overtime compensation, labour disputes etc. But workers also call up to share their personal issues, the break-up of relationships, homesickness and loneliness.
Q: How can we be sure the hotline numbers are actually posted in the factories? Additionally, is there any other means of advertising that there is such a number to call?
A: We think that posting the hotline number is not necessarily a true indicator of good social and environmental performance on the part of the factory management. It is better to do a physical inspection and interview workers about their knowledge or use of the hotlines. Tracking the frequency of calls is another important indicator.
We advertise the hotline numbers by posting the phone numbers inside the factory, the dormitories or other areas within the compound and our business cards have the numbers on, too. In cases where we find management preventing the workers from using the hotline, we train employers and employees on hotline process and practice, and adjust the factory's KPI rating if they are not as open and transparent as we wish.
Q: Are there any other grievance channels for the workers to use?
A: We post SEA team email and postal addresses. The factories should maintain suggestion boxes, internal newsletters and communication notice boards. And there's always an opportunity for workers to raise issues with us during our audit interviews with them.
Q: In 2009, Juliana So from CLSN said that the hotline number in China has succeeded because of the commitment and partnership of CLSN and SEA field staff to resolve hard-to fix problems. What's your view on that?
A: Yes, some tough cases were resolved but there are relatively few lawsuits brought by workers in the adidas Group supply chain. The intention of the hotlines is not to prevent lawsuits, but to minimise grievances and urge the factory to abide by the law. But as we know, sometimes arbitration is the only way to resolve a conflict.
We have also seen cases where workers follow a lawsuit when they are not satisfied with internal compensation or settlements. This is particularly true for cases of physical injury. After recent legislation on tort liability law was introduced, workers can now claim civil rights as well as employment rights.
Q: Juliana So also said that another success story is the early interventions which reduce the need for legal actions between workers and factories, as well as providing workers with basic rights information and guidance.
A: It takes a long time to go through a lawsuit procedure. Most workers can't afford the time off or the lawyer's fee, so few of them pursue legal action. In the event where workers have decided to take legal action, the hotline's access to information and guidance on rights helped the litigating workers prepare their case and put them in a better position to negotiation with their employers.
Q: What improvement is needed from the hotline providers?
A: I find it critical to establish the workers' confidence in the hotline service, particularly for those who are calling in for the first time. Staff stability and turnover at the hotline centre is a challenge. Training is constantly needed to maintain acceptable qualities of service. It might be a good idea to have a standardised communications script for the hotline staff, too.
Q: What is the future of worker hotlines? What is the best scenario?
A: We would like to see additional services provided to build capacity for problem-solving, and expand the work that brings the complainant and the management together to solve problems. Our own internal SEA staff need more training to improve how we follow up incoming hotline grievances. More promotion of the hotline services is critical to increase uptake by workers and management.