How can workers breathe new life into auditing?

Direct worker reporting - enabling workers to report directly and regularly on their working conditions via their mobiles.

We have long been whining about the shortcomings of auditing – the obvious downsides of announced audits for transparency, the problems with falsification, follow-up, lack of anonymity and sample size when it comes to worker interviews, the conflict of interest with the supplier also being the auditor’s paymaster, and the inconsistent quality of auditors.

These limitations render auditing vulnerable as a single solution to monitoring social compliance and social impact along global supply chains.

But a widespread abandonment of the role of the auditor is not going to happen anytime soon. Most of the post-audit models currently out there also involve auditors.


Let’s face it, given the scale of the challenge (knowing what’s going on with working conditions along global supply chains, and finding and eradicating modern slavery and worker exploitation), we cannot abandon the one resource we have been developing since the 1950s.

But how can we supplement the role of the auditor or enhance audit effectiveness in our landscape?

Direct worker reporting: the missing link

In walks direct worker reporting – enabling workers to report directly and regularly on their working conditions via their mobiles (aka worker voice).

Let’s refer to it here and elsewhere as direct worker reporting given that: workers have voices, and many confuse worker voice with worker representation or with worker testimony.

The term direct worker reporting simply states what these tools do – they enable reporting from workers directly. So, back to using direct worker reporting to enhance auditing.


The audit ceases to be a one-size-fits-all and evolves into a more tailored and forensic process during which auditor and supplier use the direct worker reporting results as a means of discussing where improvements need to happen, and how soon.

This seems simple enough. However we have learnt that certain basic rules of engagement apply if an integrated audit-direct worker reporting model is to work well for workers, suppliers and buyers alike.

So, here they are:

  1. Deliver the results in advance to suppliers first. The diagnostic power of clear and simple direct worker reporting results landing on a supplier’s desk a few weeks prior to an audit visit means that the supplier can attempt to address some of the issues already, in preparation for the discussion with the auditor.
  2. Use the time set aside for the worker interviews to gather workers to discuss the results and make suggestions as to how best to address these promptly and in an affordable manner wherever possible.
  3. Use a before and after (or pre and post) approach. In other words, enable the workers to generate the first results prior to audit, and then another set of results after the audit. This allows the first set to function as a needs assessment for the supplier with support from the auditor, and the second set (and possibly a third) as a means of measuring the extent to which whatever changes have been made, have impacted on workers themselves.
  4. Use a long-after call cycle and its corresponding results to measure longer term impact of any changes introduced to address issues in the first set of results. Not all improvements feature immediately.
  5. Train the auditor to help the supplier to use the results as a means of prioritising what improvements to make, and to think through ways of sourcing suggestions (beyond the audit visit and worker discussion slot) regarding how any issues reported can best be addressed.

Integration model: the direct worker report alongside the audit

While there are a series of options available when it comes to combining direct worker reporting with auditing, from the above it will already be clear that we are in favour of granting both supplier and auditor access to the results to drive immediate improvements.

However some of our clients are interested in using direct worker reporting results as a source of verification – to test the accuracy of the audit picture. We advise against this approach. Why?

It pits the auditor and the supplier against the workers whenever results differ markedly. This is counter-productive because suppliers can be inclined to claim that the workers cannot be trusted to give an accurate account and vice versa.

On the other hand, integrating the results into the audit process can have the opposite effect – encourage the supplier to work with worker results and perceptions, and to draw on workers as a source of ideas when it comes to addressing issues they have identified.

Direct worker reporting and supplier rating

Direct worker reporting results can also be extremely useful as a source of insight in a supplier rating system.

This is a different model altogether, but again the same choice applies: to integrate such that workers’ results inform the rating, or to use them as a means of verifying or checking a supplier rating?

The latter suffers from the same shortcoming of potentially triggering further tension between workers and their employer, especially in those cases where the rating is higher and the worker reporting results show urgencies which challenge a high supplier rating or clean social bill of health.

About cost saving and caution

Finally, there is also potentially the cost-saving implication of using direct worker reporting to inform the audit interval between audits – longer for higher performing sites and shorter for lower performers.

However, when direct worker reporting is used in this way, we need to be extremely cautious about what direct worker reporting can cover and what it cannot and find another means of gathering these insights in the audit intervals.

For example, workers cannot adequately report on issues they don’t directly encounter in their working lives, such as management systems and governance, or whether health and safety standards are adequate (some workers have only ever experienced the realities on the site where they work) and environmental impact.

Some would argue that indeed in time workers will be able to report on even these indicators. But for now auditor oversight or some other means of verification (sensors in combination with photographic and other evidence) may be needed.

The worker-inclusive audit

In short, direct worker reporting can make a significant contribution to improving audit effectiveness and indeed to measuring and enhancing the impact of auditing.

But perhaps the contribution warrants a new term or even field. What about Worker-Inclusive Auditing? It has a nice ring to it, and underlines the centrality of the worker who works alongside the auditor rather than replacing her or him.

Rather than abandoning the audit model altogether at a time when we have no tried and tested alternative – let workers contribute to enhancing the quality of auditing.


If in doubt, boycott – or not?


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.