Global social audit firms have been protecting the profit and reputation of brands, but failing to protect the garment workers' safety and improving working condition in the supply chain, according to a latest report.
Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), a global worker rights group, on Tuesday launched the report titled "Fig Leaf for Fashion: How social auditing protects brands and fails workers".
The report held social auditing industry responsible for a number of fatal accidents in the readymade garment (RMG) sector in countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Citing glaring examples of corporate negligence through case examples from the past decade, it also offered an extensive analysis of the corporate controlled audit industry, connecting the dots between the most well known business-driven social compliance initiatives, such as Social Accountability International, WRAP, the FLA, and amfori BSCI, and the largest corporate-controlled auditing firms including Bureau Veritas, TÜV Rheinland, UL, RINA, and ELEVATE, as well as the brand interests that they serve.
The report said, "The social audit industry has failed spectacularly in its proffered mission of protecting workers' safety and improving working conditions. Instead, it has protected the image and reputation of brands and their business models, while standing in the way of more effective models that include mandatory transparency and binding commitments to remediation."
The CCC report cited the Ali Enterprises factory fire in Pakistan in September 2012, in which over 250 workers died, unable to escape due to bars on exits and windows, the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh in April 2013, which killed 1,134 workers and left thousands more injured and traumatised; and the July 2017 boiler explosion in the Multifabs factory in Bangladesh, killing and injuring dozens of workers.
Each of these factories had been assessed and declared safe by several of the prevailing auditing companies, including TÜV Rheinland, Bureau Veritas, and RINA, using the standard, methodology and guidance of leading compliance initiatives such as amfori BSCI and SAI, the CCC said in a statement.
In the cases of both Ali Enterprises and Rana Plaza, accredited auditors had deemed these facilities safe just weeks or months before they were reduced to ruins, it said, adding in terms of Ali Enterprises, this assessment was made by auditors who reportedly never even visited the building.
These foreseeable and avoidable disasters exemplify systemic failures of corporate-controlled social auditing; an industry which in the words of one auditor goes "as far as the brands want us to go", it said.
This industry is operating with impunity; there have been few, if any, negative repercussions for the auditing companies and social compliance initiatives involved in these deadly disasters, the right group said.
In fact, these initiatives continue to grow, with revenues and profits of the industry key players increasing over the years, in tandem with the growing number of audited factories.
"The industry has been able to keep these many failings under the radar because of its notorious lack of transparency and the opaque chains of accountability which preclude sharing any outcomes with the outside world, including the workers whose rights, lives and health are at stake," said the report.
The structural causes of these social auditing failings, and the ways in which these should be addressed, are explored throughout the report, with extensive recommendations offered to numerous industry stakeholders, including calls for more transparency, accountability, and genuine worker involvement.
The CCC statement quoted Ben Vanpeperstraete, its lobby and advocacy coordinator and an author of the report as saying, "Twenty years of CSR has failed to improve labour conditions, and will continue to fail until there is an overhaul of the prevailing social auditing regime."
Brands cannot be trusted to regulate themselves, Ben Vanpeperstraete said, adding that binding regulations with the threat of sanctions and worker empowerment via unions are the only mechanisms that can ensure brand responsibilities are taken seriously, due diligence is performed and workers lives are protected.
Kalpona Akter, executive director for Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, said: "It is essential for people to understand that the social auditing system is deadly by design. Auditors do not have the skills, time, or incentives to properly detect unsafe buildings, but they do issue reports that reassuringly tell brands that there's nothing to worry about."
The Rana Plaza building collapse was a man-made disaster and completely preventable, she said, adding that brands were wilfully blind to the factory conditions, which were just not detected or ignored by the social audits they commissioned.
"It is startling that no one - not a brand or an auditing firm - was held to account for the massive loss of lives. We need laws that hold these corporations to account for their negligence," the statement quoted her as saying.