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Commentary: Five international firms refuse to conduct social audits in Xinjiang; time to recognise limitation of social audits everywhere, says NGO

"Social Audit Reforms and the Labor Rights Ruse", 7 October 2020

The recent refusal by five international auditing firms to inspect for labor abuses in Xinjiang was the right response to the severe human rights violations there. But this is a moment for the auditing and certifications industry, which assesses the compliance of work sites with human rights and labor rights standards, to rethink its approach to “social audits”—periodic workplace inspections—everywhere.

... The fact that a few firms have refused to conduct social audits in Xinjiang is an important step. But all firms should do more to publicly acknowledge their limitations in ferreting out labor abuses beyond Xinjiang.

... Companies have a responsibility to take steps to ensure that their business operations respect human rights, including labor rights. Many companies largely rely on social audits of businesses that are part of their global supply network—factories, farms, and mines— to produce confidential reports about working conditions.

Companies draw on these confidential audit reports to represent to consumers and shareholders that their operations are complying with human rights and labor rights standards.

... Auditing and certification firms should acknowledge the limitations of social audits and identify a set of human rights risks that do not lend themselves to being detected through them. Just as some firms have done in Xinjiang, they should acknowledge that they cannot adequately audit issues like sexual harassment and discrimination at work.

...By publicizing the limitations of their current inspections, auditing firms put brands, retailers, agents, and suppliers on notice. It will force companies to take more effective measures to stop egregious workplace abuses. It will make it harder for companies to pass the buck onto auditing firms and take a box-checking approach to their human rights responsibilities.

... Developing models for collaborative, credible, and independent grievance-redress that is accessible to workers and local communities should be central to how companies approach human rights in their global supply chains. Continuing to rely on social audits will mark out companies as being out of touch with reality.

Part of the following stories

China: 83 major brands implicated in report on forced labour of ethnic minorities from Xinjiang assigned to factories across provinces; Includes company responses

China: Mounting concerns over forced labour in Xinjiang