Inspections, certifications, safety audits: what sounds helpful is often a sham. So-called safety and working condition audits are of little use to workers in global production and supply chains or residents of (agro)industrial areas. Instead of state inspections, for which there is rarely sufficient money or political will, private companies monitor labor, health and environmental standards.
This social auditing and certification system helps European buyers claim they are “doing something,” although in reality, it intensifies problems in the supply chain. By appearing to be a functioning, independent inspection of the supply chain, the system prevents the actors responsible – factory owners, manufacturers, distributors, and especially governments – from developing effective mechanisms to improve working conditions. The same applies, for example, to certifications of the sustainability of plantations, and the safety of medical products or hazardous structures such as dams.
However, repeatedly there are serious problems with inspections by private companies. Certifiers are sometimes commissioned and paid by the companies they inspect – undoubtedly a conflict of interest. Moreover, audits (also known as “conformity assessments”) often only provide snapshots of operations, especially when visits are announced, as is typical. In some cases, only issues with easily measurable indicators are examined, such as mandatory overtime and firefighting equipment. By making these visible and ignoring others, certifiers suggest that other problems, such as pressure on trade unions, discrimination or sexual harassment, do not exist. Inspection methods are also often problematic, for example, only using data from the inspected company’s management, interviewing workers in front of their superiors, or neglecting trade unions’ views.
ECCHR’s cases highlight a structural problem: in addition to their clients, certifiers bear responsibility for the environment and human rights, but it is difficult to hold them accountable. Particularly in high-risk industries such as mining and textiles, those responsible for safety, the environment and human rights must not be obscured by long and disperse decision-making chains. One possible solution is to create legal standards on quality control for social and sustainability audits, similar to those already in place for other types of certification.