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How This Startup Uses Mobile to Give Factory Workers a Voice

Living abroad in China, Bryce Watson saw how workers were often treated when they migrated from their rural villages to pursue opportunities in thriving urban centers—denied access to run-of-the-mill public services like education. They ended up compensating by building their own makeshift workarounds, pooling their money to create illegal private schools, for example.

Working at one such school inspired Watson, in the throes of an international development career, to start kicking around ways to improve the working conditions and the lives of the legions of laborers in regions all over the globe who power countless factories. He’d seen corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives in action and was convinced that their topdown approach was an “unrealistic” attempt at solving a systemic problem.

On top of that, the lack of strong labor laws in many of the manufacturing hubs leads workers to ask around to family and friends about the best factory employers, Watson said. Witnessing those informal knowledge exchanges sparked an idea: what if all of that information were available online for every worker to access?

The solution, Watson said, is the mobile-friendly website he’s creating called Vize, short for “Incentivize.” With assistance from an Indiegogo campaign, it’s launching in Tijuana first, he said, a developed manufacturing hub that’s attracted the likes of Samsung, FOXCONN, Honeywall, Bose and a strong base of medical device makers, semiconductor facilities and aerospace factories. The Mexican border town also features a number of pharmaceutical production plants, and Vize is focusing on that industry, along with aerospace, at launch because “they have a pretty good reputation among workers,” Watson explained.

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There’s also a labor shortage in Tijuana, so these factory owners are very interested in finding out what they can do to entice workers to stick around and stem the bleeding from the average 8 percent to 10 percent monthly churn. Workers will jump ship for the promise of another 50 pesos ($2.70) per week, Watson said.

With nearly “universal” smartphone adoption in Tijuana, reaching users through a mobile-centric platform is not just possible, but probable, and an app for Android is coming soon because among factory workers south of the border, “virtually nobody has an iPhone,” Watson noted. Once Vize has successfully demonstrated its proof of concept and expanded throughout all manufacturing industries in Tijuana, Watson said his sights are set on countries like India and Vietnam, where conditions are “worse off” but smartphone usage also is high.

Because Vize is only valuable to factories once a critical mass of workers are using it, Watson said the first focus is on getting laborers to use the platform, and his team is working with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), social and cultural institutions and more to spread the word.

From the app’s homepage, workers can search for job openings, filtering by location, industry and company rating. There’s an option to post company reviews, too, or “follow” any employers of interest.  When sharing a review, workers can delve into specifics such as the kind of benefits offered as well as feedback on the manager overseeing their position. In longform sections, laborers are encouraged to detail the pros and cons of the position so that their fellow job-seekers can make informed decisions.

The only identifiable information Vize asks for is gender, making it “impossible to track information back to workers,” Watson noted. Over time, he hopes to be able to collect more user information, which will be valuable for providing better services. “We need to develop trust in the community, though,” he said.

“The reason I created this system in the first place is to create some sort of accountability that doesn’t rely entirely on a system that is, unfortunately, in a lot of ways corrupt,” Watson said. “It gives some amount of accountability, some amount of leverage to the workers so they can tell each other when there’s no one else to tell [about] those challenges.”

Arriving on a factory’s page, workers can browse reviews, which aggregate consensus insights on benefits and managers, among other things, Watson said. If a factory has paid for recruiting services, here’s where the user can evaluate any available openings.

A worker resources page highlights services and groups that can provide assistance, from NGOs and universities to educational programs and other tools to help workers improve their circumstances. A section on legal rights helps laborers navigate the law, and there’s training available for those who want to pursue a new career.

The possibility that disgruntled workers might post “malicious reviews” is something Watson has been “deeply worried about since day one.” After seeing how sites like Google and Yelp manage such scenarios, Watson decided to enable community policing, so that users have the option to downvote content that seems suspicious. Vize also employs natural language processing and sentiment analysis to determine if a review warrants a closer look. There’s a restriction on the number of reviews any given user can make, based on estimates of how many jobs the typical worker could hold over a given period of time.

It’s still early days for Vize but Watson is optimistic that workers will see the value in a platform that seeks honest communication about factory life.

“The problem usually isn’t the technology but getting people to adopt it and make it a part of daily life,” Watson said.