Transcending Box-ticking by Listening to Auditors

In 2014 I founded &Wider, a mobile engagement company which gathers insights from workers about their working lives via mobile phone and helps others to use this insight to drive improvements.

We work in the field of “responsible sourcing”. How, to date, have we all tried to carry out this responsibility?

It works like any compliance system: you have agents who test compliance, a report which tells suppliers whether or not they have passed the test, and what they may need to do to pass it.

This is the model used by police, and traffic officers. Responsible sourcing is currently dominated by a policing framework, where compliance is required and non-compliance is penalised.

Has this policing system worked in driving improved working lives for workers?

I believe we are all clear that change is needed, and that this approach has under-delivered for workers, for suppliers and for the auditors who have historically been its “face” on the farms, factory floors and pack-houses.

Why has it under-delivered, can we fix auditing, and if so how? These are crucial questions that new organisations like APSCA and others in the audit industry have emerged to answer.

We hope to shift the focus here away from policing suppliers or indeed auditors, and away from demanding a move beyond compliance. Instead here we consider the vantage point of auditors and their role in contributing to evaluating, improving and perhaps even replacing this compliance-only approach.

After all, if we are interested in hearing from workers, surely auditors qualify as our workers in the global workplace of responsible sourcing?

So it is here that I step aside, and defer to my friend, who’s worn the hats of the auditor, the sourcing agent and the strategic consultant, Greta Matos. Her heartfelt contribution is written on the back of her experience working for more than a decade in this sector, always strongly motivated by a desire to enable workplaces and supply chains that respect all those who work within them.

Getting to the heart of it

In the early days of my career, I lived in Hong Kong, working as a Manufacturing Manager. I spent much of my time working in China, building relationships, negotiating contracts, performing pre-audits and overseeing production.

When I was taken to new factories for pre-production site visits, I commonly witnessed underage workers, toxic chemical exposure, locked production doors and depressing dorm conditions. Each time I walked those factory floors I felt this sense of heartbreak, in realizing such conditions were so often the status quo; and even though I could say “no”, and place our production elsewhere, these factories were still operating at full capacity. Even if I cared, there were plenty of others who didn’t. 

Time and time again I was witness to the realities of these workers – realities that I felt helpless to change. 

Corporate strategy very often lifts us out of our basic humanness.

As I moved beyond the sourcing side of the business, into the dynamic world of social compliance and responsible sourcing, my understanding of these challenges deepened, as did my awareness of this collective heartbreak occurring at every human layer of our global supply chains. I stepped into a world immersed with people who did genuinely care, and were working day in and day out to contribute to these changes that felt so impossible in my early career.

And yet, knowledge of so many problems in the world, the vastness and complexity of those problems, and the slow pace of progress- it can weigh heavily at times. 

From corporate executives to farm supervisors, to auditors themselves, I’ve held these conversations of shared grief and heartbreak that is often invoked by audit results. These conversations are usually subtle and quiet, they live outside of the audit reports, and sometimes are held entirely within a moment of eye contact and a heavy sigh. Social compliance audits, while meant to be a highly systematic process for information gathering, are still founded on the basis of human connection. 

 

Migrant farm workers harvesting yellow bell peppers near Gilroy, California.

Corporate strategy very often lifts us out of our basic humanness. As we craft systems and standards and protocols, creating KPIs, reports and spreadsheets, we lean entirely on our strategic thinking; and what often gets left behind- by the wayside- is our hearts.

It is our hearts that have driven us to care for one another in the first place. In this moment in time, this moment of reckoning, it is essential that we bring our hearts back into our boardrooms, back into our audits, back into our compliance strategy- and especially into our “beyond compliance” imagination.

To do so, we must begin by acknowledging the heartbreak that lives within this field of responsible sourcing- this work that we all do, and take pause for a moment.

How many times in your own career has your work broken your heart? 

Imagine the number of times an auditor’s heart is broken in the scope of his career. How many children has she found working in dire conditions, whose family desperately needed the added income? How many men and women has he felt a sense of fear from, but could do nothing to help? How many subtle forms of abuse has she discovered and uncovered in her work of gathering data and completing checklists?

How do we support the wellbeing of the auditors in our midst, present and future?

Auditors bear witness to complex issues day in and day out, issues that they themselves have no control to actually change. They share a human experience with the workers that these standards and compliance initiatives are meant to protect, yet they cannot ensure protection. Most often they are not empowered to change the abuses they witness.

This is a humbling place to be.

It’s often a difficult place in which to remain whole, to remain wholehearted, in your work and in your life. Within the context of most compliance programs that operate today, we continuously ask our auditors to turn away from their hearts. How then can we then be surprised when they cannot do this work wholeheartedly?

Auditors are not merely data points and KPI's. They are witnesses to the very real and often raw human and environmental impacts of our global economies.

How do we support the wellbeing of the auditors in our midst, present and future, and enable them to participate in the possibility of positive change in the workplaces- the hopes of which brought them into this work in the first place?

Our collective human impact stretches far beyond what our minds are capable of grasping. It’s going to take a hell of a lot of creativity, grit, dedication, and heart to build an economy that is good for all. We’ve already gathered so much in terms of data, in terms of procedure and systems. Auditors play an essential role in all of this, and it’s time to listen to what they can offer that goes beyond compliance.

So, let’s enquire how they see themselves in this evolving landscape, inviting their hearts into this conversation, so that we might finally imagine a way forward that celebrates and rewards accountability- from origin to end of life.

A listening project

We have started here with asserting our shared desire for enabling better workplaces and more satisfying and better valued working lives for auditors themselves.

So, with this piece we wish to initiate a listening exercise, and provide an opportunity in the blog entries that follow to listen to auditors. In the coming months we commit to harnessing both their sectoral knowledge and their frustration with the existing compliance-based approach, to share auditors’ insights and suggestions from interviews we will have conducted.

Please come back, read more and participate if you wish.

 

This is the first of a series of blogs &Wider hopes to bring, focusing on the auditor and our post-compliance vision. Stay tuned for more updates from &Wider. Follow us @AndWider

If in doubt, boycott – or not?

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What if you were sitting around a dinner table and a friend said: “None of us should buy anything made in China because there is modern slavery in China”. What would you say?

Well, we would encourage you to look doubtful. And we intend to use this blog entry to explain why.

But first we want to share a little back-story.

There was recently a blink-and-you-miss-it development in the Dutch political landscape that few would have regarded as significant.

The Dutch constitution allows groups within civil society to lobby for a nationwide referendum on a topic of their choosing – a clear demonstration that if it is of import to some, it should be considered by all.

The first test case of this bill was a referendum over whether the Dutch should oppose the current EU agreement to support the existing Ukrainean government.

After all, trading with countries in which labour rights violations are prevalent only worsens the situation. Right?

Predictably the Dutch contingent who associate with the wave of anti-EU sentiment across Europe (not confined to the Brexit campaign) went to the polls in their droves to oppose the agreement.

But they were not alone.

Although less than a third of the electorate turned up to vote, there was a left wing lobby which supported the No vote for ‘ethical trade reasons’.

And this small Dutch minority is relevant here.

Why? According to this group, the occurrence of labour rights violations, such as child labour, in the Ukraine was reason enough to avoid associating and trading with the country altogether.
The argument went as follows: until Ukraine has sorted out its labour rights situation, Western countries should ban trade agreements – after all, trading with countries in which labour rights violations are prevalent only worsens the situation. Right?

This philosophy (if a setting is tainted by labour rights violations, we should withdraw support) is not limited to the Dutch-Ukraine association agreement debate.

But does a swift withdrawal (whether by brand or consumer) enable rapid change?

In the world of ethical trade, the notion that boycotting brands or geographies in which labour exploitation exists somehow helps to resolve the problem is a popular position for consumer groups, certain unions (not all) and certain international NGOs. A Google search for unethical brands to boycott, generates hundreds of websites listing brands consumers shouldn’t buy.

It seems unwise to debate here whether such withdrawals or consumer boycotts are effective in increasing pressure on a given brand or even a given government to tighten labour rights legislation and enforcement. The contribution seems obvious.

But does a swift withdrawal (whether by brand or consumer) enable rapid change?

“The mother of modern slavery is poverty, and the father is impunity” – Leonardo Sakamoto

There are few contexts in which a swift withdrawal or boycott targeted at an entire country could be effective, because few governments are themselves directly implicated in modern slavery.

However Uzbekistan is one of the few exceptions. In this setting protest action that affects the state would be targeting the agency driving modern slavery in this setting. For a clearer article on Uzbek cotton, see gl/T6XvA1.

So perhaps the most astute response to that friend over the dinner table is this: “the mother of modern slavery is poverty, and the father is impunity” (Leonardo Sakamoto, ETI conference presentation, Oct 2015).

So any effective strategy should ideally address both these key drivers, if the intention is to reach and empower these modern slaves rather than rendering them more invisible and more impoverished.

Tell your friend to boycott Uzbek cotton and call for other institutions (World Bank included) to do the same, but be careful of country-level boycotts elsewhere – they may render those you wish to protect more vulnerable and more disempowered.