Ethical audits in the poultry industry

A report by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission highlighted questionable recruitment practices and worrying treatment of temporary and agency workers in the country’s meat and poultry processing sector. As a response, many supermarkets are now insisting that their suppliers conduct ethical audits to ensure that workers are being treated fairly throughout the supply chain.

Major UK supermarkets take a very dim view of suppliers utilizing zero-hours contracts throughout the supply chain, notes Dr. Wheelock.
Major UK supermarkets take a very dim view of suppliers utilizing zero-hours contracts throughout the supply chain, notes Dr. Wheelock.

A report by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission highlighted questionable recruitment practices and worrying treatment of temporary and agency workers in the country’s meat and poultry processing sector.

Worker complaints ranged from physical and verbal abuse to refusals for requests to take toilet breaks and unfair pay. Around 70% of those interviewed were migrant workers, for whom English was not their mother tongue, and many were too scared to speak out against their treatment for fear of losing their jobs.

Understandably, the findings of the EHRC report made uncomfortable reading for supermarkets, which purchase 80% of all meat and poultry processed in the UK. As a response, many are now insisting that their suppliers conduct ethical audits to ensure that workers are being treated fairly throughout the supply chain.

Global village  

We are now very much a global economy with up to 70 countries supplying British supermarkets, for example. So whilst the results of the report relate to the UK only, the desire for ethical practices throughout the supply chain impacts on workers and their environments in other countries too. The UK imports around 50,000 metric tons of chicken every year from Europe and around 100 million chicken parts from countries such as Thailand and Brazil. Whatever the end product, be it burgers, pies, cold cuts, casseroles or curry, companies in these countries are all part of the supply chain.

So what exactly is an ethical audit? In a nutshell, it is a neutral, third party verifiable process to understand, measure, report on and help improve an organisation’s social and environmental performance. It is an assessment of how a company and its facilities compares with local laws and the Ethical Trading Initiative Base Code, which advocates respect for workers worldwide. The ETI Base Code is founded on the conventions of the International Labour Organisation and is an internationally recognised code of labour practice.

The code asserts the following:

  • Employment is freely chosen.
  • Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are respected.
  • Working conditions are safe and hygienic.
  • Child labour shall not be used.
  • Living wages are paid.
  • Working hours are not excessive.
  • No discrimination is practised.
  • Regular employment is provided.
  • No harsh or inhumane treatment is allowed.

There are, of course, several explanatory subclauses to the points above, but these form the basis of an ethical audit. It is important to recognise that an audit is just that: an investigative process to appraise a company’s operations at that particular moment in time.

What to expect  

So, what can you expect from a typical audit? Firstly, any ethical audit will begin with an opening meeting, which should be attended by the audit team, management and a trade union and/or worker representative. The purpose of the meeting is to make sure that all concerned understand the ETI Code and exactly what their facility is being audited against. It will also outline the processes, activities and timescale of the audit. The timescale is dependent upon the number of employees and is either one or two days.

The next step is a site tour. Here the auditor/s will conduct a visual inspection of all areas of the site. They will be looking to see how the company complies in terms of physical conditions and general practices. In particular, they will be investigating such elements as health and safety compliance, working environment and conditions, personal protective equipment, mechanical, electrical and hazardous materials.

They will also be looking at toilets, sanitation and the availability of potable water, evidence of child labour, canteen and recreational facilities, evacuation plans and unreasonable restrictions on workers’ rights or freedoms. In instances where dormitories are provided for workers, the living conditions are judged in terms of cleanliness, physical size, general structural conditions, safety, gender segregation and privacy. Auditors will also review health and safety accident records and worker training records.

The site tour is also an opportunity for an auditor to chat to a random cross section of workers in all areas of the facility about their work.

Following the site tour, there will be a series of interviews with a representative sample of workers. These will take the form of informal group and individual interviews. The group interviews will give the auditor a general consensus of what it is like to work at the facility, what the workers like and dislike and how they feel their facility compares with other similar workplaces in the region. The individual interviews give staff the opportunity to express their personal views in complete confidentiality.

Next is the pre-closing meeting, where the audit team review and discuss among themselves their observations, the documentation provided by the management and the worker feedback they have received. Using this evidence, they then assess how the company compares with each clause of the audit. Where the facility falls short, corrective action plans are formulated.

The final part of the audit is the closing meeting, which should be attended by the same representatives as the opening meeting. Here the auditors will discuss any issues they have found and the management is given the opportunity to respond. The auditors and management then agree any corrective actions and the timescales for their implementation.

The results of the audit are then posted onto the secure Supplier Ethical Data Exchange website, where retailers can log in and see how the company performed on the audit.

Positive process  

Ethical audits should be seen as a positive process – an opportunity to identify areas which are weak and take actions to make improvements. If you are confident that your workforce, work environment and work ethics are of a suitable standard, then you should have nothing to fear. Remember, auditors are not looking to trip you up; they are simply looking for evidence of a happy, healthy, safe, hygienic and fair facility.

The rise in popularity of fair-trade products in supermarkets and grocery businesses indicates that consumers are not just interested in the quality or price of the products they buy, but that social and ethical issues are equally as important. Now that you have an idea of what can be expected on an ethical trade audit, you can take proactive steps to ensure that your site will score highly, should you be asked by a client to undertake an audit. Training can help to improve your knowledge and understanding of ethical trading.

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