Rana Plaza: Germany’s OECD contact point calls for better social audits

Latest implications of tragic accident in Bangladesh

In the latest implications from 2013’s Rana Plaza apparel factory disaster, Germany’s liaison under the OECD’s human rights framework has called for so-called social audits to be improved.

The collapse of the six-storey factory led to 1,134 deaths and 2,500 injuries — and investor outrage.

Now Germany’s National Contact Point has recommended the parties to a complaint addressing the social audit of the factory, that they engage in a dialogue to improve the current attestation system of social-related issues.

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) brought a complaint against assurance firm TÜV Rheinland on the grounds that its Indian subsidiary did not meet the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises when conducting the social audit of clothing firm Phantom Apparel Ltd.

ECCHR, on behalf of a number of Bangladeshi and international stakeholders, alleged that TÜV India did not identify risks related to the safety of the building.

ECCHR also alleged the audit report did not flag up other issues regarding human rights and working conditions shortcomings, such as child labour.

Miriam Saage-Maaß, Vice-Legal Director at ECCHR’s Business and Human Rights Program, told RI:

“We are in touch with victims’ families and survivors who worked in that factory. Among those who survived and who died at the Rana Plaza were several children, so already in that one aspect the audit was untruthful.”

The German NCP, hosted under the Economic Affairs Ministry, accepted the complaint stating that it was not a “confirmation” that the OECD Guidelines had been violated and that its “mediation services are available in order to help the parties” with their disputes.The NCP excluded from its examination the building’s safety risks. It said: “Complainants had failed to demonstrate that the danger of collapse had been so obvious at the time of the audit that the experts from TÜV India could and should have perceived and documented it during the social audit, despite not having any expertise in structural analysis.”

The NCP, however, included as part of its examination “whether Phantom had been associated with child labour, forced labour or gender-based discrimination had been within the scope of the social audit”.

The NCP’s mediation ended without an agreement between the parties but it called on them to continue “the dialogue on how to conduct and enhance social audits.”

A spokesperson for TÜV Rheinland referred RI to an official statement: “TÜV Rheinland has welcomed the critical and forward-looking discussions of the disaster in Bangladesh and has at all times constructively supported these discussions.”

“TÜV Rheinland will continue to assume its responsibility which consists in constantly scrutinizing its own work, including processes and contents, regarding the carrying out of social audits and will continue to make suggestions for the further development of standards.”

Saage-Maaß added that such social audits should be the responsibility of state authorities and labour inspection agencies. “Auditing companies are hired either by the retailers or by the factories themselves. Obviously you have a conflict of interest,” she said.

The ECCHR is currently working on a legal case regarding the social audit of Pakistani textile company Ali Enterprises conducted by RINA Services S.p.A, where a blaze killed at least 289 people in the Karachi-based factory.