Meet FWFs Kees Gootjes and Chinese auditor Ms Hou

Kees Gootjes has just started working for Fair Wear Foundation as member of the verification team. This week he came back from his first big trip: Kees went to China to watch our audit teams at work.  He was especially inspired by the way the Chinese worker interviewer Ms. Hou connected to the workers.

“One of the reasons I went on a trip to China was to see the work that FWF’s audit teams do in person. Even though I have only worked at FWF for a few months, I had already seen my share of audit reports from various countries. Nevertheless, it was very exciting to witness the China audit team in action during the two audits that I saw firsthand.

During these days, I basically shadowed the audit team in their discussions with management, workers and their walks through the factory.  FWF’s audit procedure is, as far as I know, the only procedure where there are both onsite and offsite interviews of workers. These interviews have shown numerous times to be worth their weight in gold.

Colourful shoes
Even before we arrived at the factory, a part of the audit procedure had already taken place: the worker interviewer had interviewed some workers outside the factory premises. For these interviews, Ms. Hou changes into the unofficial uniform of a garment worker in China: jeans, a T-shirt and colourful shoes. This garb is not new for her: Ms. Hou used to work at garment factories herself.

The most important thing for the worker interviewer is to get as accurate a picture of conditions at the factory as possible. Audit teams inform each factory well before the visit that part of the audit process includes worker interviews. But if Ms. Hou feels that identifying herself as a FWF auditor will hinder the process, she will play the role of someone looking for work at the factory and ask what it’s like working there.

Falsify records
During offsite interviews all kinds of information can be found that potentially contradicts the testimony or documents provided by management or even by workers interviewed onsite. Factory management sometimes falsifies documents in order to pass audits; age records and working hour records can be untrue.

A common practice is ‘double bookkeeping’ of hours, where the factory maintains one record of working hours for when auditors show up, while also maintaining a true record of all the working hours for its own administration. Sometimes Ms. Hou will show up at the factory on a Sunday evening, and observe workers leaving the factory after closing time, even though management later claims that the factory is only open Monday to Saturday.

It is important to note that the information received during the worker interviews is not necessarily true. It happened recently that the mother of a garment worker in China told Ms. Hou that her daughter was underage. Further investigation revealed, however, that she was in fact 16 and legally allowed to work. Workers are sometimes said to be younger than they actually are so that they will be treated more kindly.

Follow Ms. Hou
During the actual factory visit by the audit team, Ms. Hou spends a lot of time moving among the sewing lines making small talk with workers. Generally she asks them what they are doing and what their job entails. All this in an effort to gain the trust of workers and have them be as truthful as possible. This is important, as she later gets a selection of workers to fill in a questionnaire or invite them along for a brief group discussion with other workers.

It was interesting to see how the management responded to her. At one audit, someone from the management team followed Ms. Hou wherever she went and carefully wrote down the names of all the workers that talked to her or filled in a questionnaire. During a later group discussion, a member of the management team accidentally/on purpose (who knows?) sat at a table close to the workers who were talking with Ms. Hou. At the second factory, Ms. Hou roamed freely throughout the factory, with no one keeping track of her movements.

I really enjoyed my experience in China; visiting factories, shadowing the audit teams and meeting with management. I will share more experiences and findings in future blog posts.”

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