Workers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia mark May Day in 2019 with a rally for labor rights. One sign reads “Migrant workers rights.”
© 2019 AP Photo/Annice Lyn
Migrant workers from Nepal and Bangladesh are suing a widely recognized British brand, household appliance manufacturer, Dyson, over complaints of forced labor and other dangerous working conditions at one of its supplier factories in Malaysia.
The plaintiffs are former employees of Malaysia-based ATA Industrial, a long-term, major Dyson supplier.
Andy Hall, a migrant workers’ rights specialist, first brought the workers’ complaints to Dyson’s attention in 2019. A Dyson representative said on a Channel 4 program that the company conducted six audits of ATA between November 2019 and June 2021. The final in-depth audit conducted by ELEVATE reportedly identified major forced labor risks. To date, none of these audit reports have been made public. The company representative said that they were proactively working to drive improvements in the factory and took the “ultimate sanction” of terminating the contract with ATA “when it was not making improvements in a timely manner.”
The plaintiffs are suing in England, and while the case is in the pre-action stage, Dyson’s Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Statement 2020 outlines how the company conducts risk assessments, as recommended by UK-based business membership organization, Sedex. It also conducts audits “by Dyson auditors, all of whom are qualified Responsible Business Alliance Lead Auditors, or by external auditors from recognized third-party audit firms.” This lawsuit may shine light on the effectiveness of those measures in regards to forced labor.
Irrespective of the ultimate findings in this specific case, the lawsuit is a reminder that social audits, or periodic inspections of working conditions that span a few days, have limitations.
Social audits have become somewhat commonplace, but human rights advocates and even some firms with decades of experience conducting these audits have serious concerns about their effectiveness in detecting and correcting abuses like forced labor. Impactt, one such firm, acknowledges the methodological challenges in standard audits around examining whether migrant workers paid recruitment fees and costs – an indicator of forced labor. Elevate, a social auditing firm, acknowledged in a September 2019 response to Clean Clothes Campaign, a network of nongovernmental organizations, that “social audits are not designed to capture sensitive labor and human rights violations such as forced labor and harassment.”
Yet many companies still rely on social audits and certifications as the primary vehicle to check whether their suppliers meet their private codes of conduct governing decent work.
It is increasingly becoming clear that generally, more is needed.
More auditing firms and their clients should publicly acknowledge the limitations of social audits and certifications. Audits and certifications alone are little guarantee that products are free of forced labor and other abuses. Transparency around audits is long overdue and urgently needs more attention.