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Last week, verification coordinator Margreet Vrieling was in Dhaka. The incredible amounts of overtime struck her even more forcefully than the last time she was there.
Almost 100 years ago, unions, governments and employers internationally agreed that structurally working overtime is not good for you. It was the first ever tripartite, internationally agreed, labour standard. We know that excessive overtime negatively impacts the lives of workers. We even know, and factory managers are very aware of this fact, that structural excessive overtime is bad for production: bad for the quality, bad for productivity, bad for safety. Yet time and again, our auditors in Bangladesh – as in other production countries – find that garment workers work far too many hours for long consecutive periods of time.
Double timekeeping has become common practice in Bangladesh. As our auditors are well aware of this fact, and owing to our collaborative approach, factory management is usually quite open about this to FWF auditors. The ‘shadow records’ more often than not show large numbers of excessive overtime. With salaries too low to live on, workers are ambivalent about their working hours: more hours = more pay, but detrimental to their health and to their time with family – not to mention their time to sleep and rest!
Other auditors, however, often accept the official time records, resulting in a very skewed overall image of the state of overtime in Bangladesh. Thus, some factories will ‘pass’ a social audit and get a certificate, while in the same factory FWF auditors show that overtime is extreme. This poses a dilemma for both FWF and its member companies: to really work on the root causes of excessive overtime – e.g. bad planning of collections by both the brand and the factory, the uncertainty of orders, the level of wages – you need an open dialogue between brands, factories and ideally worker representatives. Building enough trust to achieve this is completely incompatible with a pass/fail approach to auditing, which clearly provides an incentive for factory managers to falsify records. Yet FWF member brands often need those certificates for business reasons.
An audit report as a yes/no checklist for social compliance in an attempt to do business with compliant factories only, does not reflect the reality of the Bangladesh garment industry, where root causes of issues like overtime are complex and spread out over a number of parties. Rather, audits should be used as an instrument to create transparency about the situation in the factory and as a starting point for a corrective action plan that takes into account the shared responsibility of all relevant actors.