As the first trip for my new role with CSCC, I was to go to France to learn how we audit and help with translating and employee interviews. To the average consumer, when you mention social compliance at best you receive a blank face. If you add the term ‘sweat shop labour’ then the reaction is altogether different. This is something most consumers have heard about and the main country they would think sweatshops exists is, of course, China.
So when I tell friends I will be auditing in France, they also give me a blank look. What do we expect to find there? This is Europe. We have human rights enshrined in treaties and courts and laws and besides, workers know their rights, can demand fair treatment and receive support from their union. Social compliance simply isn’t a concern for Western European production.
Or is it? First of all, what a lot of people may forget or not know, is that a key element of social compliance is the right to work in a safe and hygienic environment. Child labour and sweatshops receive the most media attention however, some of the more dramatic workers’ rights abuses have resulted from poor health and safety conditions in a facility. So, whereas we might not find children working to sew sequins onto apparel in Europe, we may find workers’ safety under threat.
Having said this, most of the trip did result in satisfactory audit results. Until, that is, we arrived at the capital. Having traveled to small towns in France, the last place we expected to find workers’ rights abuse, was in the centre of Paris. But Paris can be a city of paradoxes. Right next to the district’s fancy buildings was a little road down which we were to find the European version of a sweatshop. A tiny room packed full of imported Chinese workers, sewing apparel.
The work floor was awash with hazards. No documentation like labor contracts were kept by management. The most challenging part, however, was that not one of the workers spoke French --what we needed was a Chinese interpreter, not a French one. One gentleman was able to write down where he was from and draw me a happy face.
During the closing meeting, the reception from management was either disinterest or disaccord. When we told him the fact that employees didn’t have labour contracts was a major non compliance, he simply asked us: if he gave workers contracts, how would he get rid of them when he had no work for them? That just about summed up this manager’s understanding of social compliance.
So, my France experience reinforced two things:
1) that social compliance isn’t just sweatshops and child labour and
2) that sweatshops aren’t only to be found in China.
Hannah Shoesmith is a Client Development Manager with CSCC in the UK.