Using Audits to Look Beyond Factory Walls at Worker Well-Being

March 24, 2014
  • Ouida Chichester portrait

    Ouida Chichester

    Director, Energy, Extractives, Transport, and Industrials, BSR

Ouida Chichester, Associate, Advisory Services, BSR

In our global supply chains, we know that what happens outside the factory walls affects what happens within, and vice versa. For example: If a woman working at an apparel factory has a child with diarrhea or if she is experiencing painful menstruation, she will likely miss a day of work. And if that same woman experiences a workplace injury or harassment, even after her shift ends, this will affect her personal well-being, as well as her interactions with her family and her community.

Through BSR’s factory women’s empowerment initiative, HERproject, we have conducted studies that support this: When worker well-being and health is improved, the business also benefits because employees are more productive and more loyal, and less likely to miss work.

With the proven benefit of workplace well-being programs, the question some leading companies are starting to ask is: How can standard social audits help capture or track worker well-being and encourage more brands and factories to invest in these programs?

BSR and UL’s Responsible Sourcing group explored this question in a new working paper, “Incorporating Women’s Health into Workplace Assessments,” which revealed the results of our pilot study, which incorporated women’s health indicators and business performance questions into routine workplace assessments of 43 garment and light manufacturing factories, the majority located in China.

We found that not only is it feasible to incorporate these questions into existing audits, but  leading brands, financial institutions, factories, and auditors are open to expanding audits to do exactly that.

Through our pilot study, we gained information about the factory workers’ health, and this information could help companies gain more insight into workers’ needs, further promote a rights-based approach in sourcing decisions, and influence how they interact with the communities where they operate.

While our research did not provide metrics on the business return on investment for women’s workplace health programs, it did reveal that most factories are not tracking key human resources indicators, including absenteeism and turnover rates. This finding underscores the opportunity for more factories to track these data and improve our understanding of the business value of workplace well-being programs. And, according to our research, adding these questions will require little extra effort and cost.

Integrating questions on well-being and gender that address local needs in a culturally appropriate manner while aligning with global corporate strategy will contribute to a more nuanced auditing system. Ultimately, this can help companies adjust their workplace programs to build more sustainable, resilient supply chains that meet the real needs of the workers and the needs of business.

While this pilot study focused on global garment and light manufacturing supply chains, the lessons apply to other sectors, including information and technology; extractives; and the food, beverage, and agriculture sectors.

This pilot is just the beginning of what could be groundbreaking efforts to incorporate social, economic, and cultural rights into standard social workplace assessments. Such an approach is essential to ensure that companies not only “do no harm” in the communities where they operate, but also contribute positively to people’s well-being and inclusive economies.

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