TFT Director Hilary Thompson explains why there is a better alternative to audits
Since January 2019, TFT has become Earthworm Foundation.
We have been tackling social issues for nearly as long as we’ve been protecting forests. Having started looking at worker issues around forests in 1999, we moved on to worker welfare in the stone industry in the mid-2000s. If there’s one thing we have learnt in this time, it’s that bog-standard – as done now – audits don’t improve lives for workers in plantations, quarries and factories around the world.
Whether or not audits identify issues is only part of the problem. Essentially, even if they do, they just don’t do enough to encourage and support sites to improve. How can they when the vast majority of audits are pre-announced, whereby the site knows someone is coming to do an audit? It’s similar to doing a tax return – you make sure beforehand that all your paperwork is correct.
I have been present at audits and seen the shiniest yellow hard hats and the cleanest safety shoes ever – most likely issued for that one day, and then collected and stored away until the next time. The audit is reduced to little more than a performance – with the auditor leaving with a sufficient number of ticks on their sheet, but with change no more likely to happen. At best, an audit is a tiny snapshot of what can be seen at a site on that day. And the stage is too often well set.
Additionally, we wouldn’t be as critical of audits if they were not so often seen as an end in itself. At TFT we do assess stone sites, but we are not third-party auditors. These assessments will always be an important part of our work to form a baseline. The technical qualifications to carry out these assessments are important too, but so is the need to use all your senses when assessing a site.
Visiting once is not enough either. Our findings are used as a jumping-off point to engage sites in a collaborative way, with further and regular non-audit visits. This builds trust and is where real innovation takes place, beyond compliance with random standards, allowing for more ambitious goals to be set and achieved.
Audits can be expensive too, especially for small or sub-contracted work sites. Some sites may be obliged to give access and pay for numerous audits from numerous different brands. Twenty audits a year is not that uncommon for a busy Asian factory. And at approximately $5,000 a pop, that’s $100,000 a year.
Operationally, a site audit over many hectares of buildings and 10,000 workers may typically be allocated two or three days. The workers interviewed during an audit should be around 10% of the total and a varied segment of the workforce. How thorough can this process be? Will the triangulation of managers’ input and documentation then also take place? Is the site fully reviewed? Are the processes looked at and the workers properly engaged? All unlikely in that time-frame.
Not that this is about pigeonholing the site as the bad guys. More pertinently, an audit doesn’t encourage sites to improve. Often the auditor doesn’t have a full enough grasp of the end product made by the site and its risks. And unless two auditors are sent to a site, both social and environmental issues are unlikely to be reviewed sufficiently. They are very different and separate disciplines. And auditors are not trained, instructed or enabled to offer solutions. They highlight problems and walk away. How helpful is that?
Formal audits to set international standards are rarely successful at raw material extraction sites in Asia for example, because the informality of site and worker practices often makes it ridiculous to use formal international measures. Common sense has to play a part when your tick box form asks for fire prevention equipment at an open cast quarry site. We found a bell and buckets of water and sand were sufficient. Sites have to be properly understood and pragmatic, appropriate improvements agreed.
And herein lies the difficult truth – change does not come easily, quickly or in isolation. Change takes time and creative solutions and collaboration along the supply chain. Such an approach is not easy, nor is it black and white, or as straightforward to explain as an audit. But ultimately it delivers more profound long-lasting change.