Interview with Antoine Heuty from Ulula

As part of our supply chain due diligence theme months, we interviewed Antoine Heuty, the founder and CEO of Ulula, a Canadian social enterprise (B Corp) offering a digital human rights impact management platform to help organisations taking responsibility along their supply chains.

In today’s interview, Antoine provides us with insights into Ulula as a way to leverage due diligence in supply chains.

 

1. Can you tell us more about Ulula and how you accelerate positive change?

Workers are at the core of our supply chains; yet they are often unheard and invisible-which leads to abuses with an estimated 27.6 million people suffering in forced labor conditions. Ulula – a certified B-corp- leverages mobile phones to engage with workers directly and anonymously to create more human and resilient supply chains.  We support organizations through a suite of digital human rights due diligence solutions enabling them to get direct feedback from workers and community members in real-time in order to identify problems, manage risks and engage stakeholders as key actors of the remediation process.

We have reached close to two million people in over 40 countries from small scale miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo to mega factories in China and palm oil plantations in Malaysia to construction workers in the Gulf.

We use technology to empower workers to get greater agency by enabling them to report on their actual working conditions or by offering safe and inclusive grievances and mechanisms. Technology offers access to all workers irrespective of their language and access to smartphones -we do a lot of work through voice and simple phones- and turns feedback into alerts and analytics creating more transparency and impetus for effective remedy.

 

2. What has been/are the greatest challenges users of Ulula face when (starting to) engage in supply chain due diligence?

Ulula offers a practical way to engage workers and communities across global supply chains. While this aligns with core requirements of recent mandatory human rights due diligence regulation, engaging the discussion around human rights is not easy for workers and organizations alike.

Building worker trust is the most important success factor. We have built Ulula to ensure strong privacy and worker protection. We also make sure workers can access the tool in their preferred language and use communication channels they are comfortable with -including offline. Being clear about who will be able to see anonymized data or who will receive their grievance is instrumental to building trust. Sharing the results of worker surveys builds greater transparency and creates more confidence. Involving worker representatives and independent third parties also plays a key role in building worker and remedy centered grievance mechanisms.

Organizations sometimes feel quite defensive about what they will find out when they really start listening to workers: will that open a floodgate of complaints? How will they manage? It is often important to clarify that using more effective worker engagement technology does not create labor and human rights problems; it merely helps uncover them more systematically and early. Corporate users typically uncover issues previously ignored -which offers an opportunity to engage supply chain actors to redress and prevent them. We help organizations tailor the tools so they also meet their needs and make sure we can advise them to manage cases so they can use the feedback and data they collect for action.

 

3. Do you have an illustrative example of how a company “identifies, prevents and manages supply chain impacts” with Ulula? How is information gathered?

Last year, Ulula worked with a large cosmetic brand in South Asia as it faced serious concerns of abuse towards “beauty agents”  contracted by third party labor agencies and working in their stores. Ulula designed a worker survey to help identify the root causes of the problem with questions around harassment, working hours, overtime, pay, access to grievance mechanism and workplace satisfaction. We deployed the survey amongst beauty agents in their local language via phone call (using pre-recorded automated messages) or WhatsApp text message. We reached close to 80% of the workforce enabling the identification of various abuses in the workplace and providing specific metrics  accessible on digital dashboards for engaging dialogue with labor agencies and other actors. We are also following up with periodic surveys to assess improvements from the workers’ perspective.

 

4. On impacts on the environment, employees, and society, are there specific topics or supply chain areas that companies should definitely include in their due diligence? (Maybe because they are more often overlooked?)

The selection of topics depends on the material issues specific to each sector and company. Rather than looking for the subjects that may be overlooked, it seems important to align due diligence efforts not only to what matters to stakeholders – i.e. salient issues for workers and communities- but also to areas where companies are determined to make a positive change. To be sure, companies have to take proactive action to identify and address negative impacts such as forced labor or harassment in the workplace. They also need to consider how they can create positive impacts on the planet and people and make sure they have robust systems to make sure the impact is real.

 

5. Next to working with Ulula, what can companies do in terms of creating a positive impact through due diligence, e.g., ways of supply chain engagement?

Irrespective of the particular set of tools a company decides to use to conduct human rights due diligence, the new regulatory paradigm is creating an impetus for turning policies into action. An increasing number of companies have robust and comprehensive human rights policies in place; but the implementation gap remains large and may even grow as the bar raises with new mandatory due diligence requirements.

Taking meaningful action for positive impact  requires engaging in dialogue with workers and communities on a more continuous and systematic basis. More bottom up approaches can empower workers and communities to become agents of change. Listening to stakeholders can and probably should take multiple forms -from face to face to virtual and technology-enabled options.

 

6. Do you have one final tip for companies working on supply chain due diligence?

Link due diligence to the purpose of your company – not a tick-the box exercise. It will help transform due diligence in a learning and dialogue process with your internal and external stakeholders and will help create shared value for all stakeholders.