Social audits fall short on gender equality
In September 2018, the SIPA Business and Human Rights Clinic at Columbia University set out to examine sugarcane - an industry long rife with human rights abuses and the largest agricultural commodity in the world. Since 2008, Bonsucro, the leading multi-stakeholder certification initiative for the industry, has sought to reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of sugarcane production while ensuring economic viability through the Bonsucro Production Standard.
Over a 10-month period, our research assessed the human rights outcomes of the Production Standard in India, the world’s second largest sugarcane producer. We discovered some promising interventions — such as an adapted Production Standard for smallholder farmers, who account for approximately 80% of Indian farmers, and a Farm Diary for tracking improvements. We also found several shortcomings, including on gender.
Women sugarcane farmers in India are vulnerable to lower wages, sexual abuse, denial of land title, and other forms of discrimination. According to Oxfam India, women comprise 33% of the agricultural workforce, 48% of self-employed farmers, and generate 60–80% of the food production. These numbers contrast starkly with the 13% of women landowners in the country. Women farmers contribute equally to sugarcane cultivation, yet their roles are often limited, they have little to no decision-making power, and they are typically paid one-third of men’s wages. In one instance, we even observed women farm workers being paid less for work identical to that traditionally done by men.
The Production Standard requires the "absence of discrimination," which includes any "distinction, exclusion or preference made on the basis of sex." But without greater gender sensitivity, this requirement is largely ineffective. Here’s why:
Payment: Wages for women farmers are usually paid to their male head of household, making it impossible to know whether they are being paid adequately.
Land Title: Farmers must provide proof of land ownership through land titles. Due to societal bias, women farmers rarely possess this documentation and are much less likely to achieve certification than their men counterparts.
Grievance Mechanisms: Effective operational-level grievance mechanisms for workers’ rights are absent on most farms. Those that exist generally do not handle complaints related to working conditions, but more commonly access to inputs such as pesticides, seeds or water, or delays in transportation of harvested cane. Trade unions or membership organizations have grievance mechanisms, but membership is typically restricted to those possessing documented land title.
Data Collection: The Standard does not recommend the collection of gender-disaggregated data, which makes it impossible to verify an "absence of discrimination."
Access to Washrooms: While there are core criteria for access to drinking water and first aid, there is no requirement that farms have nearby washrooms. Many farms have no washrooms, which places women farm workers at greater risk of gender-based violence.
Recruiter Accountability: Farmers commonly contract with "gang leaders" to recruit and oversee migrant labor. However gang leaders are not accountable to the Standard, and often do not verify the age of farm workers or payment of at least the minimum wage, raising the risk of exploitation of all migrants, including women and children.
To address these shortcomings, our report recommends that Bonsucro integrate non-discrimination with respect to gender as part of its "platform for change." Additionally, the template for the Farm Diary should be revised to include gender-related data.
Bonsucro is now revising the Production Standard, and released a draft for public comment in May. Key improvements bring it more in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). For example, Principle 1, "Obey the Law," has been changed to "Assess and Manage Environmental, Social, & Human Rights Risks." Several new indicators include one on mapping "internal, external and vulnerable stakeholders."
In this new draft, "absence of discrimination" now prohibits discrimination based on gender rather than sex and a publicly available anti-discrimination policy is now required. Discrimination could manifest as "affecting equal pay, equal training opportunities, [and] equal allocation of job opportunities…" Furthermore, the newly added core indicator on the "absence of abuse/harassment" requires a publicly communicated policy that prohibits sexual harassment and violence. However, grievance mechanism remains a "non-core" indicator - meaning that it is still not essential for a sugar mill to receive certification.
Bonsucro must also grapple with the marginalization of women farmers from the market for Bonsucro-certified sugar. In our study, women farmers comprised only 2% of the pool from which the member mill selects farmers for certification. Women bear the double burden of home and farm work, which prevents them from taking a more active role in managing the farm. It also likely accounts for why they are underrepresented at Bonsucro trainings.
Certification must also address the problem of verification. Auditor reports are not public, and the annual outcome evaluation reports only include aggregated data and case studies of positive impact. This lack of transparency denies stakeholders — including gender rights advocates — the opportunity to identify potential auditing errors. Reports about auditor misconduct in the cocoa sector, including "patchy inspections" and "susceptibility to fraud," underscore long-standing concerns surrounding social auditing.
In June, Bonsucro launched a new grievance mechanism explicitly aligned with the UNGPs’ effectiveness criteria, allowing complaints to be resolved primarily through mediation. The mechanism includes accessibility features — such as partnering with local groups to prepare complaints, and allowing complaints to be filed in multiple languages and resolved through culturally sensitive means — that can benefit women farmers and farmworkers. It is too soon to tell how well the mechanism will address the specific harms that occur to women. So far no social auditing scheme has been able to match worker-driven social responsibility models.
Like other certification standards, Bonsucro is trading on its brand. But improvements are needed to make sure the most vulnerable workers are protected. Investors, buyers and other stakeholders who rely on Bonsucro certification as a sign of respect for human rights should treat this multi-stakeholder initiative as a work in progress.
The public consultation on the revised Production Standard draft is open through to July 31 and can be accessed here.