This interview with Professor Aziz Islam was written by Sam Hadad for the The Times-Raconteur, you can read the original article here.
Growing up in Dhaka, Professor Muhammad Azizul Islam was surrounded by densely packed garment factories supplying far-away companies. Seeing tired workers leaving buildings late at night inspired his future research career and he’s now an expert in supply chain transparency at the University of Aberdeen.
Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of garments after China. Islam is sceptical of the potential of social audits to bring meaningful change to the lives of garment workers, especially when audits are done internally. “Workers are scared, they are weak actors,” he says.
After the Rana Plaza collapse, he looked into the social accountability systems of the factories on the site. “Companies, including Walmart, sourcing from those factories had a social audit mechanism in place, but it didn’t protect the workers; they were killed because the owner of the factory forced them to stay and work,” says Islam.
In a research paper from 2018, published in Accounting and Business Research, Professor Islam describes social audits as “symbolic and ritual strategies that help maintain existing inequalities rather than… improving corporate responsibility or… the welfare [of workers].” He thinks companies use social audits to legitimise their operation and to “feel they are doing the right things”.
Over the last decade he doesn’t believe workers’ lives have changed dramatically despite more and more companies doing audits. “Multinationals are getting richer and richer, and suppliers are getting richer,” he says. “10 years ago, they had one house and one car, now they have three houses, three cars, a driver… they become MPs, they’re rich and more powerful in society. But workers are still vulnerable; their jobs are not secure.”
But most of all he believes political reform is necessary for things to genuinely improve. “Governments in the West play a significant role in creating change. If the UK government wants there to be no corruption in Bangladesh, they can threaten to pull out of the whole supply chain. Trade relations should be tied up with other human rights issues,” he says.
“You need to create a democratic environment. Every change that happens in the UK is because of democracy and the way Oxfam, Greenpeace, No Sweat and other social enterprises raise their voices and speak out. We need these alternative, critical voices that aren’t funded by corporations to hold multinationals accountable".