In particular, workers’ accounts suggest that auditors often fail to detect illegal exploitation of adolescent workers. At almost every worksite that Transparentem investigated in India and Myanmar, those interviewed said young workers were ordered to hide during audits, including in dormitories, bathrooms, a warehouse, and a factory cellar. According to workers, employers and recruiters at some factories also coached workers to lie about their ages, falsified workers’ dates of birth on identity documents, and created fake medical records that misrepresented workers’ ages.
Our investigations have found that, in addition to employers, recruitment agents who link workers to jobs can hide abusive practices. While not targeting auditors directly, this deception may later prevent auditors from uncovering problems. In particular, due to recently increased scrutiny of recruitment abuses and the proliferation of policies prohibiting worker-borne fees, recruitment agents have incentives to conceal instances when workers have paid for their jobs. For example, in two of our investigations in Malaysia, migrant workers said their agents gave them inaccurate receipts for their recruitment fees and coerced them to make videotaped statements in which they falsely said they had not paid for their jobs.
Further complicating the problem, workers themselves are often given incentives to hide problems from auditors. Some workers told Transparentem investigators that they feared brands would cancel orders or break off relationships with their employers if they did not help conceal violations. These workers said they lied to auditors to protect their jobs. As one worker in Myanmar explained, “If the factory fails the audit, they won’t get orders, so the workers lie for that.” Factories can lose brands’ business if they fail audits, which can hurt the very workers that audits are meant to protect.
At their best, social audits can enable workers to bring serious issues to the attention of brands that can ensure that suppliers improve workplace conditions. But as our investigations demonstrate, the current system of social auditing is failing workers. Changes are urgently needed.
First, Transparentem recommends increasing worker involvement in the audit process. Auditors should gather information directly from workers in an environment free from interference by management. If auditors do not speak a worker’s native language, they should engage independent translators. Auditors should also interview a wide sample of workers that accurately represents a factory’s workforce. And brands should ensure that their audits employ techniques that can help prevent deception, including strategic use of unannounced audits. In certain political contexts, however, accurate social auditing may be impossible, regardless of the methods used. For example, as the US State Department has advised, audits in Xinjiang are likely to be unreliable due to harassment of auditors and extensive surveillance, which can prevent workers from speaking freely about labor abuses they have experienced.
We also call for enhanced transparency around audits. Brands should publish audit reports, corrective action plans, and remediation progress reports. Currently, these documents are not available to workers, worker organizations, and others who have the firsthand knowledge to confirm or dispute findings and hold companies accountable for improvement. Regulators may soon be empowered to act if companies do not. This February, a bill was introduced in the US Senate to compel companies making over US$500 million annually to publicly disclose their audits as they relate to forced labor.
But improving audit processes alone will never be enough to protect workers. Many brands devote disproportionate resources to auditing and certification programs, at the expense of more substantive efforts to improve labor conditions.