15th Sept 2023: Bangladesh – Audits Shortchange Workers – important contribution to debate on challenges to social auditing

Labor Day protest organized by the National Garment Workers Federation for a higher minimum wage and the right to organize, Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 1, 2023. © 2023 National Garment Workers Federation

An important contribution to the debate on challenges in auditing – Bangladesh: Social Audits Shortchange Workers

Full report/article available at: Human Rights Watch.

Shahidul Islam’s Killing Underscores Heightened Risks for Independent Unions and the Need For Better Social Audits

(London) – The social audits and certifications that brands and retailers use are totally inadequate to monitor and respond to threats to workers trying to organize independent unions, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing an analysis of standard social audit reports of garment factories in Bangladesh.

Most audit reports either barely addressed the issue of freedom of association or, in some cases, recycled stock language as part of auditor findings on freedom of association from other factories’ audit reports. Previous Human Rights Watch research has shown that standard social audits present more significant risks for labor abuses being under-detected or undetected, especially for issues like discrimination and harassment, forced labor, child labor, and freedom of association.

The seriousness of these shortcomings assumes more importance in the aftermath of the June 2023 killing of Shahidul Islam in Bangladesh. Islam, an independent labor union leader, was killed as he was leaving a factory operated by Prince Jacquard Sweater Ltd. after trying to mediate on behalf of garment workers over nonpayment of wages and Eid bonus. The factory had undergone audits under two commonly used social audit systems.

“Islam’s killing is a chilling reminder of the dangers facing independent labor union leaders,” said Aruna Kashyap, associate corporate accountability director at Human Rights Watch. “Brands and suppliers should not rely on social audits and certifications as they are woefully inadequate, particularly in preventing violence and harassment of workers seeking to form or join independent labor unions.”

We Need To Rethink How We Monitor Workers’ Right to Freedom of Association Using Social Audits

Human Rights Watch released an analysis of 40 social audit reports of garment factories in Bangladesh provided by a European clothing brand in 2018. Brands and retailers globally should revamp how they monitor workers’ rights to freedom of association in factories from which they source.

Following the Islam killing, the authorities have registered a criminal complaint and are investigating the case. They have made a number of arrests. People interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that a few “goons” involved with the so-called yellow unions operating in the areas where the attack occurred were among those arrested. One experienced activist said that a few of the names had come up on other occasions since December 2020, when workers had reported intimidation and harassment. Bangladesh authorities should ensure that an independent and thorough investigation is conducted to hold accountable all those involved in directing, planning, and executing the attack, Human Rights Watch said.

Yellow Unions Violate Worker’s Freedom of Association

“Yellow unions” are set up or controlled by employers and violate workers’ right to freedom of association under international labor rights law. They have been used to thwart workers’ efforts to organize independent unions, an increasing problem in Bangladesh.

The failure of the Bangladesh authorities and garment manufacturers to curb abuses in the rights of independent labor unions to operate, connected to the growth of “yellow unions,” has contributed to the violence and harassment of independent labor unions and workers, Human Rights Watch said.

Brands typically rely upon standard social audit or certification programs. These are private inspections of work sites usually conducted by audit firms to assess compliance with their codes of conduct, including labor standards. Such inspections are conducted over a few days and typically paid for by brands or suppliers, with workers interviewed inside factory premises, which is not a safe space for workers to speak candidly about their working conditions. These audit reports are not published.

Amfori and Sedex Audited Prince Jaxquard Sweater Ltd. – Reports Should Be Published

Prince Jacquard Sweater Ltd. has undergone social audits by two well-known third-party social audit programs, Amfori and Sedex. In June, Human Rights Watch wrote to Amfori and Sedex. Both confirmed that the factory had previously been audited using their programs. A Sedex representative said they could not share a summary of the audit findings owing to the confidentiality of “specific details” of audits; Amfori also cited confidentiality but provided a summary stating that the audits had detected some wage-related problems. Prince Jacquard Sweated Ltd. did not respond to Human Rights Watch.

Sedex and Amfori should publish the social audit reports of Prince Jacquard Sweater Ltd. and commit to revising their policies to publish all social audit reports in a searchable database, Human Rights Watch said.

More broadly, all social audit and certification programs should require publishing their audit reports. Transparency is critical to learn more about what these reports say and the confidence levels audit firms or audit programs have in the information they generate. A Human Rights Watch review of unpublished Sedex Members’ Ethical Trading Audit (SMETA) reports, including from 2022, for example, found that Sedex audit reports carry a standard disclaimer that a Sedex audit “does not confirm … compliance with any legal regulations or industry standards.” In its letter to Human Rights Watch, Sedex did not commit to publicizing this disclaimer on its website and other marketing materials.

As mandatory human rights due diligence laws are being developed worldwide, policymakers should acknowledge the limitations of third-party auditing and certification programs. They should hold auditing firms and auditing programs accountable as service providers for the quality and credibility of their social auditing services and hold brands accountable for their risk-based due diligence tools.

All Social Auditing Reports Should Be Published

Governments need to scrutinize the social auditing industry closely and, at a minimum, require brands to publish all social audit reports when they opt to use such audits or certifications as part of their human rights and environmental due diligence.

Laws requiring brands and retailers to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence should not permit social audits and certifications alone to be sufficient evidence of due diligence. Organizations like Amfori, Sedex, and others have repeatedly acknowledged that their social audit tools are not substitutes for regulatory oversight.

Relying on social audits or certifications is not the proper way to address freedom of association and collective bargaining issues. Instead, brands should support the creation of a monitoring and grievance redress system in consultation with independent labor unions and labor rights organizations operating in Bangladesh. Such a mechanism should be aligned with the effectiveness criteria outlined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and, at a minimum, ensure independent labor unions have equal power as businesses in the governance of such a monitoring and grievance mechanism.

Going Forward

Brands that are part of the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, which is being renewed, should ensure that the Accord’s protections for workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining are expanded. Brands that have yet to join the Accord should do so.

Brands should also review and adopt fair purchasing practices, including fair prices and responsible contracts, to prevent and mitigate the risk of causing or contributing to labor abuses, including through unauthorized subcontracting.

“Brands, audit firms, and audit and certification schemes tout audits and certifications as independent and credible,” Kashyap said. “But where they are flawed or opaque in ways that put in doubt their independence and the credibility of information they generate, they cannot be used as tools for human rights due diligence.”

Full report at: Human Rights Watch.

See Also: New York Times 15th Aug 2023: Solar Company Says Audit Finds Forced Labor in Malaysian Factory.

See Also: 14th Feb 2022 Human Rights Watch Dispatches: Workers Sue Dyson on Allegations of Forced Labor in Malaysian Supplier – Case Should Drive Scrutiny of Social Audits Industry, Transparency Long Overdue.

See Also: 3rd April 2023: Modern slavery audits in supply chains subpar for investors.

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