Better working conditions: important for everyone
It goes without saying that we all want to work in good conditions. Sadly, that’s not the case for everyone. That’s why we’re working hard for better working conditions at our producers in risk countries, mainly in China and Southeast Asia, but also in Africa and South America. So we carry out more thorough inspections or ‘social audits’ for example. These are absolutely necessary if we want to make progress. At the same time, we’re focusing increasingly on training and educating the producers. Kirsten Ceulaers, Manager Sustainable Sourcing at Colruyt Group, explains.
Why does Colruyt Group insist on these audits?
Kirsten: “As a player in the international market, we take our responsibility seriously. We think it's only logical that working conditions at our producers are good. We want to be certain that they at least comply with their national laws, but also with international treaties and conventions. That’s why we follow the amfori BSCI standards, an initiative by several companies to improve working conditions worldwide. The standards are strict, and they suit us perfectly as a group.”
How do we go about it?
Kirsten: “To achieve greater impact, we work intensively with amfori BSCI, which has over 1,900 members. There is excellent cooperation, with a lot of consultation with other members. If we see that a producer doesn’t comply with the rules, we can have a greater effect on them working with other members. If they don't carry out any improvements, they risk losing more customers. So there’s more chance that they’ll take action. In addition, we also ask producers to take amfori BSCI training courses.”
How does amfori BSCI help us to work more efficiently?
Kirsten: “It is a fast-growing organisation. The more members that join, the more audit results we can share. As a BSCI member, we can see audit reports carried out by other members on shared producers. A producer which has already attained an acceptable score doesn’t need a second audit from us. It’s not our aim to burden a producer with several audits per year. On the one hand, that saves the producer time, on the other hand, we can focus our resources more effectively and our efforts become more efficient.”
How exactly does an audit work?
Kirsten: “The inspections are very thorough. The auditors review the entire business, examine documents such as contracts, payrolls, holiday records and safety procedures, and talk to employees on all levels. The length of an audit depends on the size of the company and the number of employees. For a large company, an audit can easily take up to five days.”
“At the end, the auditors discuss the results with the management and employee representative, and if areas for improvement have been identified, they draw up a guidance plan. Depending on how severe the shortfalls are, they are inspected again within 3 to 12 months to see to what extent the plan has been implemented. Even if no shortfalls are found, a follow-up audit will take place within 2 years.”Read more
What are the results?
Kirsten: “In 2017, we commissioned independent auditors to carry out audits at 144 producers, an investment of almost 200,000 euros. On top of that, we received audit reports from other retailers, bringing the number of producers audited to 552."
“At around 97% of them, working conditions were found to be acceptable, whether or not after some small to large improvements. We also ended our relationship with 18 producers who refused to be audited, or who scored badly and weren’t prepared to do anything about it.”
“Over the years, we’ve seen a gradual improvement. That’s partly thanks to the inspections, but also to the guidance and support that we've provided. That’s a good sign, investing in audits is an effective way to achieve improvements.”
Can you already see a change of mindset?
Kirsten: "Sadly, it’s not always easy to address certain issues. People need time to arrive at new insights. There’s a lot of goodwill, but often there’s still a lot to be done about things like excessive overtime, bad pay or safety in the workplace. To make real progress often requires a change of mindset. That takes time. But I try to put everything in place. In Europe, the average working conditions were also far from acceptable one hundred years ago. But see where we are now. So, give them time to work on it. And I’ve also noticed that awareness within the businesses is growing steadily.”
What is our next challenge?
Kirsten: "Since 2017, we’ve been prioritising fresh fruit and vegetables producers where the supply chains are often more complex. It’s not easy to check all the fruit and vegetable growers. In principle, we always audit the processing station. We can’t inspect the small growers often numbering in their dozens, so we must rely on sampling. Moreover, farmers depend on their harvest. If it fails, the station will buy from other growers, who we haven't always checked. Due to these rapid changes, our local inspections are sometimes too late. We must also take the harvest into account. If we visit the grower and there’s no work going on, then there are a lot of things we can’t check, such as the possible exploitation of seasonal labour.”
“This is why we’re now making long-term efforts to simplify the chains and reduce the number of links. This can only be achieved through more transparency and cooperation with our partners. So from now on, we’ll work using the waterfall principle: every link in the chain is responsible for monitoring their suppliers’ circumstances.”
What about the future?
Kirsten: “I’m hopeful about the future. Most producers respond positively to our audits and are pleased with the initiatives we take. That gives me a good feeling. I’m contributing to better working conditions all around the world. Therefore, I also hope to enter into dialogue with even more producers, and to work with them within a very open and transparent framework. Organising social audits is in fact a basic requirement for addressing possible distressing situations.”
Name: Kirsten Ceulaers
Function: Manager Sustainable Sourcing
Job? • I coordinate the monitoring of respect for proper working conditions at the producers of our own brand products (and direct imports), both for food and non-food.
Energy? • Seeing that producers can now follow our commitment to social audits more easily and often make progress gives me a lot of energy.
Best project? • Charting our fresh fruit and vegetable production chains with the buyers and suppliers and developing a broader purchasing policy framework has been the best challenge of my job up until now.
With this initiative, we contribute to the following Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.