This time we want to focus on the 3rd party audits, as they are widely used in social auditing. Moreover, we will only talk of social audits as it is definitely what we know best and it is also a quite peculiar topic of auditing. Contrary to the audits of quality management system, the criteria of social audits are not matching at all the actual situation of many low costs countries. Compliance is then unfortunately not an option.
The goal of a 3rd party audit is to issue a report widely released. Thus, the report will be criticized by all the stakeholders (factory, customer, agent…) which would be very good in an open and cooperative relationship. When an auditor is not able to provide an obvious evidence, it is however much easier not to notify the topic at all. All the same, although the workers interviews are normally considered as direct evidence, they can be disputed (and experience shows they actually are). So, frequently, only material evidences are taken into account while doing the report.
But, in many countries, there is a widely organized dissimulation practices in factories. Records are removed from the workshops before the audit. Then it becomes almost impossible to have material evidences of the non compliance. Although that doesn’t mean at all the factory is compliant. 3rd party audits are then directly impacted by the consequences of a process based on cooperation of stakeholders while it is not the case actually. The organization becomes indeed an incentives to the dissimulation. Let’s look at that from the factory point of view. If the factory hides the truth, it is either not discovered and it is then directly to the benefit of the factory, or it is actually seen, but getting material evidence is difficult. So it will be easy to dispute the finding and to ask for the non-compliance to be removed from the report. There is then a double bonus to hiding the truth.
Moreover, many brands have a binary approach of the audit results: Pass / Fail. So factories have to hide some systematic gaps more related to the country than significant of the factory. So the factories enter the hiding process by this way, and then tend to implement it on every topics. Even the business model of the 3rd party social audit is impacted by this binary approach and the huge gap between the criteria and the actual situation in factories. It is indeed very difficult to sell a service of certification if the ending result is always fail. Then, the lack of material evidence avoids the notification of the non-compliance and allows the certification to the satisfaction of the factory / customer. The business model needs “compliant” factories to keep running. It promotes the low importance given to indirect evidences.
So, two key principles of the audit (stakeholders cooperation and adequacy of the criteria with the current situation) are not granted. However, the 3rd party auditing process is still implemented without adaptation. That impacts the whole supply chain. Using 2nd party audits avoids an important part of these issues. That seems more relevant in today’s conditions.