We all remember our worst sites, the ones that haunt us and drives us to keep pushing for change. Mine was some 15 years ago, in Southern China. Of all the many places of work I have visited over the years, many of them nowhere close to meeting expectations on working conditions, this was by some way the bleakest.
The site itself was unremarkable; a series of small buildings situated next to a small river. It employed some 100 or so workers and supplied component parts to other factories, and these parts eventually ended up in assembly lines of export-facing ‘first tier’ factories supplying products to huge, international brands.
There was little in the way of basic safety equipment and there would have been little hope of escape had there been a fire.
It didn’t take long to realise that pay was well below legal minimums, working hours were sky high and that there was a complicated system of deposits, charges for uniform and loans that in effect bound workers to the factory. The management were fairly open about the situation – by today’s standards audit fraud was still relatively new and they seemed unconcerned by my questions. The accommodation block was pitiful, dangerous and locked at night, the factory itself was rabbit warren of small rooms, cluttered, poorly lit and barely ventilated. There was little in the way of basic safety equipment and there would have been little hope of escape had there been a fire.
In the midst this I came across a boy who was 14 or 15, maybe 16 at a push. His uniform and the charges the management made for it bound him and his colleagues invisibly and silently to the factory and the supply chain it served.
The most depressing thing about this factory though was its position in the supply chain; as a supplier of component parts it was invisible, not at the top of the chain in a ‘first tier’ factory which received the attention and scrutiny of the brands it supplied, nor at the bottom in the raw material end, where, even then, there was a chance to exert influence. Considered too far down a complex supply chain to exert commercial leverage. The brands felt the situation at this site was beyond their responsibility.
Companies and their partners will increasingly need to look for solutions instead of problems.
Of course, I understand the argument that it is best to start where you have a chance of influencing change, and of course it is important that those first-tier sites are walking the talk. And I fully appreciate that there are companies out there working tirelessly throughout their supply bases (although they are few). But for the majority, the other essential links in the chain, the suppliers of component parts and part-finished products, the sub-contractors and to a lesser extent the raw materials, are largely forgotten.
This is where the Modern Day Slavery Act offers a glimmer of hope. During its consultation period I, like others, argued that it should go further, apply to more companies and be more far-reaching in its requirements. However, the pursuit of perfection should not get in the way of progress and even as it is this Act offers us an opportunity. Its explicit expectation that a company’s responsibility does not end with its direct commercial relationships but with the entire supply chain paves the way for more companies to be held accountable for their many suppliers.
The idea that auditing your first-tier suppliers and ‘closing out’ reported non-conformances satisfies responsibilities of companies is gone and with it, I hope, the reliance on an auditing framework which is failing to drive sustainable and widespread changes. It would be impossible to audit every site in a supply chain and so alternative models will have to be considered, risked-based – of course – but collaboration and partnership will need to play a greater part. If working conditions are to truly improve over the next 15 years, companies and their partners will increasingly need to look for solutions instead of problems, with training and empowering replacing checklists and box-ticking. Some of this is starting but there is much to do still to shake off the ghost of our audit-driven past. It is too late for the boy I met, but maybe it offers some hope for the next generation of vulnerable workers, all over the world, who are still living and working as modern day slaves.
Katie Kenrick is Senior Manager for TFT’s Respect programme.