New buzzword, same problem: how ‘worker voice’ initiatives are perpetuating the shortcomings of traditional social auditing

Ultimately, the only way to root out labour abuses in global supply chains is by disrupting traditional power relations between workers and businesses.

Research from the past two decades has demonstrated the perpetual failure of social auditing programs to detect and remedy labour rights abuses in global supply chains. Yet the industry of compliance monitoring has shown incredible resilience to these critiques: multinational corporations are expanding their use of social audits; civil society actors are legitimizing audits as a path towards corporate accountability; and social auditing companies are growing their suite of services to retain clients and attract new ones in an increasingly competitive market.

One recent trend among social auditing initiatives has been the use of “worker voice” tools via technology-enabled worker surveys, like Elevate’s recently-acquired Laborlink, a mobile worker survey and grievance tool, or the Responsible Business Alliance’s Worker Well-being initiative, which includes a heavy “worker voice” component. Other “worker voice” mechanisms include CSR-promoted “participation committees“. These committees are commonly presented as an alternative to labour unions, when in practice are unrepresentative groups that are often controlled by management, and as such fail to give workers a viable form of protected collective representation. These initiatives are typically framed as features to improve traditional social audits. The purported aim of RBA’s worker survey is to “help inform improvements to grievance and reporting mechanism tools, education for workers, and more effective worker-management training”. And in a recent webinar promoting Elevate’s “Worker Sentiment” survey (a scaled-up version of Laborlink), the company acknowledged the failure of traditional social audits in detecting gender-based harassment, stating that out of thousands of factory audits in China, only one harassment incident was reported, before adding, “We’re not finding it. Does it mean it’s not happening? I don’t think so. The audit of today is not designed, it’s not able to pick up harassment-related information”.

While it may be promising to see the social audit industry acknowledge the need to include workers’ perspectives in developing supply chain solutions, in their current form, “worker voice” initiatives do little to address the structural flaws within the social auditing regime. These include: a major implementation gap between the standards that auditors are monitoring and actual practices on the ground; widespread manipulation, deception and cheating in audits; financial conflicts of interest between auditing firms and those who commission audits; a lack transparency in audit processes and outcomes; and inconsistent corrective action to address labour rights violations that are discovered.

Simply integrating “worker voice” into the equation cannot reverse the widespread shortcomings because the problem is ultimately not audit methodology or design, but is rooted in corporate power and prevailing business models within supply chains which dictate how profits are made and distributed, including the seemingly ever-smaller share available to pay workers. Our current supply chain model of fast, high-turnover production – characterized by a ‘price squeeze’, with buyers constantly seeking to lower the price paid to suppliers, as well as a ‘lead time squeeze’, with buyers demanding ever-shorter turn-around times for orders – has a profound impact on labour beyond wage levels. Crucially, this model has cultivated a context in which suppliers have a financial incentive to crack down on workers who attempt to organize, unionization being a powerful a vehicle through which labour can bargain for higher wages and better working conditions. Since 2000, there has been an overall increase in the violation of workers’ rights, including workers’ rights to form unions, bargain and strike.

The kind of “worker voice” tools that are designed to complement social auditing – instead of challenging the status quo – are structurally unable to fulfill their promise of empowering workers to improve their own labor conditions, because they do not provide workers with protected and collective mechanisms through which they can demand respect for their rights and improvements to their wages and conditions of work without fear of reprisal. In the absence of a real enforcement mechanism, these “worker voice” initiatives, and the broader constellation of social auditing schemes they stem from, simply contribute to a crisis of “standards without enforcement”, allowing businesses to profit from labor exploitation with relative impunity.

Recognizing that the only way to root out labor abuses in global supply chains is through autonomous and collective worker participation, and through binding, transparent, and enforceable agreements with businesses responsible for work conditions, the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) paradigm has emerged in stark contrast to prevailing social auditing initiatives. From the agricultural fields of Florida, which were once dubbed “ground zero for modern-day slavery”, to the apparel sweatshops of Bangladesh, the locus of some of this century’s most horrific factory fires and building collapses, the WSR model has provided a “proven new form of power for previously powerless workers to protect and enforce their own rights”. WSR’s success can be attributed to its foundational premise that labor rights protections must be worker-driven, enforcement-focused, and based on legally binding commitments that assign responsibility for improving working conditions to the global corporations at the top of supply chains. Unlike social auditing schemes, worker voice is built into the very DNA of WSR model; workers are the driving force in the creation, monitoring, and enforcement of WSR programs. A critical element of WSR programs is the formation of an independent body responsible for investigating complaints and dedicated to protecting workers’ interests, that ensures swift and effective action when workers identify abuses. This is very different from the “worker voice” tools discussed above, which were not designed to effectuate meaningful remedies for labor rights violations or protect workers from retaliation. Ultimately, any initiative purporting to empower workers through worker voice is only as effective as its ability and willingness to disrupt power relations within global supply chains.

This blog was first published by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre as part of their series on Beyond Social Auditing.