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Opinion

Beyond social audits in supply chains: Who should monitor? Whom to trust?

This blog is part of our series on Beyond Social Auditing.

After 20-30 years of voluntary efforts by Western brands to address forced labour, bondage, wage theft and other abuses in global supply chains, the problems are still rampant. Now, after 20-30 years of abuse disclosures by corporate watchdogs and media, several Western democracies – and even the EU itself – are developing legislation to address the private sector’s failed supply chain due diligence. Promising parts of the new laws and proposals include the possibility of legal liability for companies and the recognition of remedy for victims, but a key part is missing:

How do we adequately and systemically monitor for cross-border supply chain abuses in a way that goes beyond the status quo, i.e. flawed private social audits and fragmented civil society efforts?

I set out to explore that question in my recent essay ‘Why are monitory democracies not monitoring supply chain slavery?’ and suggest three overly simplified models – the multitude, monitory and mandate models – to break the silence on monitory alternatives to the private audit paradigm. We need to address the lack of credible, external oversight in addition to companies’ own due diligence efforts.

That was three months ago. Since then, I have received more feedback than I had over the last three years on my investigative pieces taken together. Much inspiration from a diverse range of people, including scholars, legal experts, prosecutors, procurers, ILO staff, CSR consultancies, corporate watchdogs and labour activists, for which I am grateful.

What feedback did I get?

Hold your horses, Peter, that ship has sailed! Private audits are too embedded in the system to be replaced by other models. I agree, most of the time. We can work for incremental improvements at best, says my inner realist, though I still prefer to listen to my inner idealist.

Systemic monitory models, independent of brands’ control, are simply not on the radar. It is not easy to find anyone who is serious­ly considering alternatives to private audits. In my essay, I elaborate on such monitoring models. Interest is increasing, and the current wave of European law development on mandatory supply chain due diligence is indeed a hook, especially its implementation of public oversight mechanisms and enforcement.

Authorities and key stakeholders should discuss and test alternative supply chain monitory models with credible independency (from brands) and transparency (for the public) as well as capacity to meaningfully cover all relevant supply chains. The upcoming legislation will have no significant impact, if its enforcement accepts the current private audit format as adequate fulfilment of a company’s duty of care instead of including verification measures independent of industry’s control.

Monitoring (conducted credibly, systemically, continuously) is valuable in preventing harm, complementing lawsuit- and remedy-appro­aches focused on harm already done. Monitory approaches and approaches addressing legal liability of brands and/or auditors are not opposites but supplements. Strong liability (properly defined, enforced, monitored) and successful lawsuits also have preventive aspects to disincentivise harm.

Monitoring by corporate watchdogs comes in many forms and is increasingly professionalized but lack attention and recognition, especially from academia and legal experts. Better bridge-building across professions could create synergy.

Alternatives to private audits are often overlooked or undervalued for reasons I discuss in my essay. Now is a good time, and about time, for us to increase attention - and kick-start our imaginations - on how to adequately and systemically monitor cross-border supply chains for workplace abuses. And when we do, we should start by agreeing that to be credible, any supply chain monitory model must recognize workers and their local groups or unions as part of the solution.

No systemic supply chain monitory model will work if those whom it wants to help are not meaningfully involved in oversight efforts. Sadly, this is far away from the norm of today’s private audit paradigm. My inner idealist says it is not too late to turn that ship around.

Beyond Social Auditing

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