If you are a producer, a social (ethical) auditor is maybe not necessarily someone you might invite over for tea, yet these ‘agents of change’ form a crucial spoke in the economic value chain wheel. Elise-Marie Steenkamp investigates.
As global requirements grow more stringent there is a greater need for social auditors and as a professional group, there are not enough auditors to service the South African agricultural industry. This shortage could endanger the growth of the industry and continued legal and trade compliance.
The South African agricultural industry needs to understand and cherish the value of audits, especially social audits if it wants to continue competing internationally, says Retha Louw, SIZA CEO. “Auditors face many challenges and while the need for audits grows every day, the number of available auditors remains stagnant,” says Louw.
At the SIZA programme, approximately 70 social audits are conducted monthly. This is currently conducted by 20 social lead auditors and 8 environmental lead auditors. Additionally, over 60% of the accepted auditors also audit on other global standards such as SMETA, BSCI, WRAP, Fairtrade, URSA, etc., which also take up auditors’ time.
Furthermore, due to competency requirements on market demand and standards requirements, it takes a year to reach the required competency levels so that an auditor can be recognised as a lead auditor. Auditors are highly skilled and need agriculture knowledge and experience after graduating from a learning institution before they can even consider entering a training programme to become lead auditors.
According to Louw, SIZA proposed a training and development initiative to remedy the current situation. This training initiative needs to be independent of SIZA and other stakeholders and include disciplines such as food safety and sustainability, agricultural exposure and context to ensure that such graduates can provide competent audit services. This programme will provide access to a wide range of employment opportunities.
Complaints about the auditing process have been in the spotlight often. Similarly, auditors have indicated poor treatment by some producers. SIZA regularly receives complaints across the value chain from producers, agri-workers, buyers and auditors themselves. SIZA follows an agreed protocol and engages with the relevant parties to try and resolve each complaint amicably and independently.
“Although we protect anonymity, we attempt to get each complaint in writing and to not overreact to emotionally verbalised complaints. South Africa is a complex country, and we believe that SIZA has contributed materially to making a difference in the sustainable development and transformation goals over the years,” said Louw.
“By ensuring that suppliers close all corrective actions before an Audit Completion Letter is issued, we place emphasis on correcting what is wrong to protect all parties involved against risks around supplying and sourcing products from this country.”
SIZA adopted a third-party audit process, meaning that audit firms and auditors are listed and accepted by SIZA based on international standards and principles to conduct audits on its behalf. Such auditors are required to prove competence and compliance with internationally accepted auditor requirements. The reason for this approach is for the programme to be independent of audits so that data is credible and trustworthy.
SIZA is comfortable that the management systems, procedures, and policies that are currently in place are implemented consistently in all cases that have been brought to its attention.
According to Louw, it is always concerning to hear that South African suppliers allegedly do not treat auditors well. “This could lead to an even bigger shortage of auditors. This kind of behaviour is probably not only related to SIZA audits but all ethical audits in South Africa, no matter which standard they are based on. Although penalising a supplier can be a short-term solution, we engage with industry organisations to find long-term solutions and see if we can change behaviour in this regard. Unfortunately, generalised complaints are very difficult to address or to follow up.”
SIZA has now initiated an ‘auditor complaints procedure’ which will be shared with all the audit firms for input and review before it will be implemented. This procedure will include aspects such as:
- Clarity around when SIZA can become involved during a third-party audit.
- How auditors or producers can lodge complaints in writing against a particular individual/auditee/auditor.
- Good practices and tips on protecting audits, such as confidentiality of telephone numbers, identifying an emergency number at an audit firm, etc.
- Support groups within each firm.
SIZA currently represents 42 commodities around South Africa and is accepted by more than 300 businesses around the globe where market requirements are expected from suppliers.
We are not the enemy – a social auditor speaks
Elize van der Westhuizen, Technical Schemes SCFS and Global Ethics/Social Schemes manager, NSF answered some of our questions.
- How long have you been a social auditor?
My interest in social auditing started in 2017 when I first investigated different global standards. This led me to take SIZA social training in 2018 before qualifying as a social auditor. Today, as part of my role I lead global ethics and social schemes at NSF.
- Why did you decide on this career?
I have always been passionate about improving working conditions and ethics by encouraging responsible business practices. Throughout my career, I have been involved with international lobbying and setting standards for various topics affecting workers and employers. For me, it was a natural transition to social compliance and auditing.
- Share some of the highlights of your work.
The most rewarding aspect of being a social auditor is implementing a positive change in businesses throughout South Africa. We not only mitigate supply chain risks and help expose risks businesses might otherwise be unaware of, but ultimately help improve people’s lives – seeing ethical practices implemented is incredibly rewarding.
A lasting highlight for me was, after auditing a smaller farm against the SIZA scheme, one of the workers thanked me for caring about his wellbeing and that he is treated fairly. He hugged me. It was a simple thing, but it brought home to me the impact and importance that social audits can have.
- In your opinion how stressful is social auditing in South Africa?
Although it can be incredibly rewarding, being a social auditor is not for everyone. As more consumers demand greater responsibility and transparency from brands and make more ethical purchase decisions, the demand for social responsibility audits such as SIZA is growing rapidly, and there is a need for more auditors to qualify. As an auditor, you need to manage your time to avoid the risk of burnout due to the volume of work and travel required, which can sometimes mean auditors spend quite a bit of time on the road, especially during peak seasons.
- Have you ever been treated badly by producers on farms?
Unfortunately, I have been on the receiving end of abuse (on rare occasions), when on site. This is never acceptable, but it does happen, and you need to be prepared. There are some bad actors out there, and it is our job to identify and report on these practices. This has resulted in me getting verbally abused by farm managers, trying to prevent me from entering a facility. You can feel vulnerable when this happens, especially if you are in remote locations or lack a phone signal.
Recently SIZA has made it easier for auditors, but also for producers to lodge complaints, a step that hopefully will prevent any ill-treatment of auditors and vice versa.
- On the other side, what is the nicest thing that happened to you during your work?
Encouragingly, most of the producers we work with are very pleasant and are usually eager to show us what they are doing to protect their workers.
- Producers often have a negative mentality towards auditors. What would you like to tell producers?
A negative mentality often stems from a lack of understanding of the value a social audit and the SIZA, WIETA or SMETA processes can bring to their businesses and society. Remember, a Global G.A.P. audit is not the same as a social audit, despite what some producers may think. Social auditors are not the police. We are professionals trained to be able to provide a service to identify worker risks and protect business owners on request of the market you supplied too.
If, for example, we were to look at one aspect of social auditing, modern slavery. Worldwide, 40 million people are estimated to be trapped in modern slavery, with one in four of them children. Social audits play a critical role in highlighting the risks of this happening at the source and, in turn, protect any brands along the supply chain. Responsible sourcing has never been more critical than it is now, as consumers have never been more aware. Schemes like SIZA, WIETA and SMETA help businesses implement responsible labour practices that demonstrate their commitment to a transparent and ethical supply chain and showcase good practices in agricultural businesses.
Some site managers can get frustrated with how thorough the social audit process can be, but it’s only because on-site audits are so involved that they can identify any potential risks you may have regarding working conditions.
- Anything else that you would like to share?
Remember, social auditors, are not the enemy. Sometimes we are disliked because we highlight risks and force change. But that change helps to improve working conditions and protects brands.
It takes a commitment to become a social auditor. You must first belong to a professional body such as the Association of Professional Social Compliance Auditors (APSCA). This can be costly and involves passing a series of three international exams and plus or minus, depending on experience, 100 shadow audits before you can qualify. Only when you are fully qualified will you be able to perform audits on your own.
Since global and local requirements are constantly changing, you will need to keep up to date with any changes in legal requirements in South Africa and globally, which requires continuous learning.
South African producers are privileged to have local schemes like SIZA and WIETA. Most of the requirements align with local legislation and local requirements. They have direct access to these organisations. A scheme like SMETA also brings a global requirement. Since South African producers are global players, they need to implement sustainable labour practices and systems to meet the needs of international buyers.
We all have a role to play to showcase the good that is done in the country but also to work on the areas that require attention as highlighted during the social audit process.
Retha Louw, SIZA CEO Elize van der Westhuizen, Technical Schemes and Ethics/Social Schemes manager.