Social compliance audits screen for labor exploitation within the supply chain. A vital aspect of any audit team’s job is to visit the supplier location – such as a factory – and assess labor conditions via worker interviews. Understanding if a company’s suppliers are adhering to expectations and codes of labor rights and worker treatment are the essential goals of these audits. However, research conducted by the UNU Macau-Mekong Club team exposes weaknesses in the traditional method of interviewing workers upon which many humanitarian groups and development organizations rely so heavily. As a result of these gaps, many workers may be suffering undetected as modern slavery persists.
In many cases, auditors visiting a factory will be under pressure to assess many different compliance issues during one visit. Lacking sufficient time to properly uncover labor conditions, auditors may cut a worker interview short and prioritize quicker tasks. In some cases, auditors may lack the skills and experience necessary to conduct a comprehensive interview that addresses the complexity of most modern slavery situations. The International Labour Organization (ILO), a UN agency, recommends 11 separate indicators of forced labor be considered when assessing the risk of slavery. Research by UNU Macau and The Mekong Club suggests that most social-audit interviewers could address more adequately these complex indicators. Forms of exploitation adapt over time in response to legal loopholes, changing laws and inspection practices. When an auditor is not aware of new exploitation patterns, they might miss the cases right in front of them.
Because factories often hire large migrant-worker populations, auditors may lack language skills – or on-site translation facilities – during worker interviews. They may also be faced with cultural barriers that hinder workers from speaking freely about personal matters (such as sexual harassment) with others.
In 2019, The Mekong Club and UNU Macau collected survey responses from more than 200 auditors from 27 multinational brands. More than half of respondents indicated that they faced language barriers during the interview process. In most cases, social audit interviews are conducted in a group setting to save time. In fact, only 12 percent of auditors we surveyed said that they interview workers one-on-one exclusively. Workers lack privacy and can experience peer pressure when speaking in a group of colleagues – especially with line managers present. This hinders workers’ ability to speak freely, especially about conditions of exploitation.
Furthermore, a lack of consistency across the data collection process even within one company’s vast network of supply chains can make comparing results and consistent reporting on labor exploitation challenging. Our research reveals how some auditors work from paper-based guidelines only, while other auditors rely on their own experiences to steer the conversation and type of questions asked.
A number of “worker-voice” initiatives have been built and successfully implemented across supply chains. But corporations are frequently eager to integrate worker-voice tools into their social auditing regimes as if the technology could serve as a one-stop solution to structural flaws in their labor practices.
Sometimes, the shortcomings of these solutions lie in their design. In many cases, tools require the workers themselves to download and store the application on their own personal device and subsequently take the initiative to use the platform to self-report issues. This poses challenges in locations where smartphone technology access is low or where data use is expensive.
Most flaws in worker-voice tools lie in the systemic issues beyond their purview. These include a dissonance between auditing standards and working conditions confronted on the ground and a lack of consistency in business responses to labor-rights violations once identified. While worker-voice technology shows a promising commitment to ameliorating worker conditions from tech developers, suppliers, and auditors alike, it requires refinement before it can be implemented to promote large-scale change.
The Apprise Audit application
Apprise Audit is an innovative mobile solution developed by UNU Macau and Mekong Club as a worker-voice tool with all stakeholders in mind – from auditors to corporations to the workers themselves. Apprise Audit can be downloaded onto the phone of the social compliance auditor and presented to the workers during an audit. The app offers an audio questionnaire, which workers can respond to while wearing a headset to protect their privacy. Workers select their language from a menu, and a series of questions are delivered to the worker via their headset, for which they can respond on a simple interface designed for illiterate workers.
The questions asked via the app reflect the ILO indicators of forced labor and were carefully developed after months of consultation and field testing with key stakeholders. Responses can be aggregated and viewed on a dedicated content-management system. Only authorized users have access to the interview results and can track any “red flags” picked up during the interview sessions. Workers can choose to remain anonymous during the process or select to leave contact details for auditors to follow up.
Apprise Audit has been used in numerous countries across Asia and has already uncovered instances of labor exploitation. In one case, female workers were asked whether they had undergone pregnancy testing before being allowed to start work at the factory. Prior to using Apprise, forced pregnancy testing had not been identified in this location. From using the app, the company uncovered the use of pregnancy tests and worked with their supplier to eliminate this practice.