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Aqua Star, audits and a union leader in prison

26 July 2019 Feature
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No one surpasses the standards we set for ourselves
Aqua Star


The failures of social audits, which ostensibly serve to assess supplier compliance with minimum standards, are well known. Rana Plaza had been audited, and certified to be in compliance with the safety standards set by retailers sourcing from a building which became a mass grave. The IUF routinely encounters flagrant human rights violations in operations confirmed by the auditors to be in compliance with the highest standards.

Audits are the corporate defense against the direct engagement with unions prescribed by the human rights due diligence procedures elaborated in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The procedural guidance is clear: when it comes to workplace rights, responsibility cannot be 100% outsourced. Companies should be working with unions to identify the risks of adverse human rights impacts, prevent them from happening and take remedial action when rights violations occur. But when confronted with evidence of human rights violations, companies invariably respond by asserting that all is well, and the audits prove it.

For many years, the IUF has been highlighting abusive employment practices at seafood processor Bumi Menara Internusa (BMI) in Lampung, Indonesia, where workers have been struggling through their union SPBMI to improve conditions. BMI is a major supplier to a number of large seafood processors and retailers, primarily in North America, including Aqua Star. Aqua Star, like its corporate peers, "expects" its suppliers to respect human rights. To manage this expectation, Aqua Star "requires that suppliers undergo regular third-party social audits to ensure fair wages, safe working conditions, and ethical practices."

To the best of our knowledge, audits failed to register an important human rights violation when the union leader at BMI was arrested in May  this year at the company's instigation and is now, at BMI's insistence, facing a 6-year prison term. Union secretary Reni Desmiria submitted a fake high school certificate when she applied for work as a casual employee at the company 8 years ago. This did not become an issue for management until, after returning from maternity leave last year, Reni organized a significant number of workers in the mandatory government health scheme, at which point the company moved to have her arrested and prosecuted. The authorities indicated that Reni could be released; BMI insists she remain in prison and be given the maximum sentence. She is currently on trial.  

The IUF has conveyed this to Aqua Star and other BMI customers, advising them of their responsibility to use their relationship with BMI to halt this brutal abuse of company power to bust a union. BMI is using a notoriously corrupt legal system in a country with a history of repression to persecute and imprison a union leader. Aqua Star and other companies who source from BMI should urgently be addressing the brutal reality of a six year prison term for a minor offense, and what it implies for their "expectations". They have a responsibility to act.

When the IUF learned of an impending Aqua Star audit at the company's Lampung factory, we advised Aqua Star that the auditors had to speak with the workers and their union representatives if the audit was to have any credibility.

The auditors came and went without speaking to the workers or their union representatives. Due diligence? Over and done with. The auditors ticked the boxes. And a courageous union leader faces 6 years in prison for enrolling workers in a health insurance scheme which is by law an employer obligation.

Aqua Star declares that "No one surpasses the standards we set for ourselves" - an appropriate description of how companies continue to unilaterally determine the scope of their human rights obligations. The IUF continues to fight for Reni's freedom with all the means at our disposal.