ICP Helpline: Successfully Addressing Factory Worker Concerns
As China developed into an industrial powerhouse over the past 20 years, many young adults moved from rural areas to urban centers to work in factories. These individuals become transient or 'migrant' workers for a few years before most of them return home. China's household registration system, the houkou, which is gradually fading, still ties many social services to location which means migrant workers in the cities often go without proper healthcare, housing or education.
Migrant workers face other challenges as well. For example:
The toy industry works hard to make sure that its products are manufactured in a safe and humane work environment. To protect the interests of the workers in its suppliers' factories, mostly migrants, the industry established a confidential toll-free Helpline service to address their individual concerns. The service is available to 1.4 million factory workers in 2,400 toy factories participating in the ICTI CARE Process (ICP), the toy industry's ethical manufacturing program.
The purpose of the ICP Helpline is to inform, educate and empower workers so they can effectively manage work related issues and their personal lives. It also provides a confidential grievance mechanism, when needed. Workers typically use the service to obtain information about appropriate OT wages, labor contracts, social health insurance, pension plans or paid maternity leave to be sure they are receiving correct pay and benefits under Chinese law. They often seek personal support with relationships, homesickness, hygiene and health issues or, sometimes, feelings of suicide.
To ensure workers are aware of the ICP Helpline service, participating ICTI CARE Process factories are required to post information about worker's rights and the Helpline in public areas, and to distribute CARE Cards, which are pocket-size worker information cards that highlight worker's labor rights, and include the toll-free Helpline number. The card was recently updated to encourage workers to contact their local labor bureau. A total of 810,000 cards have been distributed to approximately 756 factories covered in the Helpline program during the June 2010 to March 2012 time period. Plans are to eventually make distribution a condition of factory compliance certification.
All calls are handled by a designated local labor service, an independent Chinese NGO partner which has been engaged to manage the ICP Helpline service. This NGO has noted that, "The Helpline serves as a good listener, helping to relieve workers' negative emotions by allowing them to state their problems and give voice to their feelings". The Helpline is open 2pm to 9:30pm every day all year round, except the seven days before and after Chinese New Year. If workers call beyond the opening hours, or if the Helpline is busy, the calls are recorded by an auto-answering machine and the caller is promptly called back.
When urgent cases pertaining to factory personnel or labor practices (e.g., withheld wages, personal safety of workers, work stoppage or strikes) are reported, the local labor service immediately informs the technical staff at the ICTI CARE Foundation Asia Ltd. (ICFAL), Hong Kong office. The technical staff quickly conducts an on-site visit to assess the situation and determine the appropriate course of action. When there are serious grievances, violations or compliance issues, ICFAL works with the factory management to mitigate the conflict or to develop a remediation plan to address the matter.
Factories are sometimes understandably wary of subscribing to a worker Helpline service and are also concerned about the expense. Based on monthly reports on the volume and nature of calls received, it is clear that workers use this service responsibly and abuse it rarely. By allowing workers to back-channel sensitive issues to management through third parties, this confidential communication channel offered by ICP provides a cost-effective mechanism for quickly resolving issues in real time and improving productivity.
The worker Helpline program continues to expand as it gains user confidence and trust. From the time of its launch in April 2010 until December 2011, a total of 4,174 worker enquiries were made with 377 cases handled by ICP staff. The main areas of worker inquiries reported in 2011 included general questions about labor law and job related payment, processes and procedures:
Calls were also placed to the Helpline seeking support of a personal nature. Many migrant workers away from home for the first time struggle with homesickness, have relationship problems, or need advice about health or hygiene related matters. The Helpline offers personal support that may not otherwise be available and clearly demonstrates that the toy industry cares about the workers in its factories.
The Helpline provides an additional communication channel which offers information and personal support, and that can serve as a grievance mechanism. ICP factory workers who use the Helpline gain knowledge about occupational safety, labor rights and wage and benefit entitlements under national labor law. As a result, they are better equipped to constructively resolve worker/management labor issues either directly or through third parties who will protect their confidentiality, rights and interests. By using the Helpline as a grievance mechanism, labor disputes have been effectively resolved, back pay provided and living conditions improved. Having independent qualified professionals to confide in ensures that workers receive responsive qualified help both personal and professionally, and that they are protected from retaliation - all of which help to relieve stressful emotions, generate greater worker satisfaction and significantly improve employee morale.
The Helpline's simplified procedure serves as a communication bridge and effective labor dispute mechanism between factory workers and management especially in cases of delayed payment and work position adjustments. It has allowed managers to assess real-time situations and, as a result, to uncover potential abuses, hazards or other issues that they may have been unaware of but need to urgently address. Since Helpline operators encourage workers to maintain a positive dialogue, and make suggestions as to the best method of communication to management, the system also helps to foster a constructive and fruitful exchange between factory management and workers. Factory managers have reported that the Helpline, "can help the worker-management relationship to become more transparent and sustainable" and "increases the ways that workers and management can communicate".
Moreover, workers can bring factory management feedback to the Helpline thus involving the factory at the very beginning of discussions. This paves the way for ICTI CARE Process follow up and for a factory to achieve a quicker resolution of any worker related issues. All of these processes help to reduce employee turnover and promote better working conditions. It has additionally positively influenced the attitude of factory managers who are slowly coming to recognize this external communication channel as one of the accepted parts of the factory's internal grievance reporting mechanism.
The Helpline provides workers with an alternative vehicle to communicate their personal and work related concerns in between factory audits. Knowing that any serious instances of non-compliance with health, safety and labor issues by their suppliers can be brought to the attention of the ICP during this period helps to promote confidence in the system among buyers. Providing a professional support system for the workers offers another proactive and concrete way for toy brands and retailers to demonstrate a genuine commitment to their safety and well-being. As factories come to recognize the Helpline as a useful internal grievance mechanism that can promote the sustainable growth of their business, buyers will have more incentive to invest in more capacity building programs.
This service has enhanced the overall effectiveness of the ICP audit program by helping technical staff to clearly understand whether there has been an isolated incident or a systemic compliance issue, as well as which issues need reinforcement during ICP audits and training programs. By engaging factory workers and protecting their interests, the toy industry can also confidently assure consumers that its products are indeed manufactured under safe and humane conditions.
Since the ICP Helpline service has proven a successful tool for educating, empowering and supporting interested factory workers, and effectively addressing worker/management labor issues, it is being continued for a third year in 2012.
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