The Vital Role of STEP Auditors in Making Fair Trade Carpets

In the intricate realm of handmade carpet production, Label STEP serves as a model for fair trade practices, setting stringent and holistic rules through its 10-point Standard. At the heart of this mission is STEP auditors, diligent professionals ensuring and supporting the implementation of the standards through audits and workshops. These individuals are vital to contributing to the adherence to ethical practices in the industry at large.

Holistic Approach and Collaboration

STEP’s vision for fair trade goes beyond addressing isolated issues. It takes a holistic approach that advocates for fair wages, education for weavers’ children, safe and discrimination-free workplaces, and beyond. STEP urges stakeholders to collaborate for a responsible and sustainable future, and only those committed to achieving this strict fair trade Standard earn certification as Label STEP Fair Trade Partners. This is where auditors come in.

An auditor, in the context of fair trade and ethical practices, is an individual tasked with assessing and ensuring that businesses comply with established standards. In the case of STEP, auditors play an instrumental role in upholding the organization’s 10-point Standard, which encompasses labor, health, safety, social, and environmental guidelines.

Monitoring Compliance:

For STEP, the importance of local auditors cannot be overstated. Auditors, situated in the very countries where carpet production thrives – Afghanistan, India, Iran, Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan, and Turkey – embody a critical understanding of the local culture, surroundings, and language. This cultural affinity allows them to communicate with weavers and workshop owners on equal terms – fostering long-term relationships.

Arshia, a STEP auditor in Pakistan, emphasizes the positive impact of social auditing on fair-trade standards, highlighting that weavers now have information about market rates, making it difficult for contractors to exploit them with lower wages. She also notes tangible improvements such as First Aid Boxes, ventilation, and proper toilets, emphasizing the gradual progress of Corporate Social Responsibilities through the Label STEP Social Audit mechanism.

Local STEP auditors make frequent, unannounced visits to carpet and rug workshops to verify their compliance with up to 90 industry-specific criteria, ensuring the entire line of handmade carpets meets these rigorous standards. Auditing, however, comes with its own set of practical challenges. In Afghanistan, the main office in Mazar is far away from most weaving workshops, making auditors like Diana face challenging journeys. Most days, she starts her travels at 4:00 am, reaching her destination around 9:00 am, navigating difficult muddy roads and occasionally encountering further obstacles such as crossing rivers and dealing with watchdogs.

Auditors also often confront challenges like reaching weavers in remote areas, addressing security concerns, or planning visits around cultural events. Diana mentions that sometimes, even after coordinating and traveling for long hours, they find empty houses due to weddings or other occasions.

These efforts are all made worthwhile by the positive impact they have on the lives of weavers. Leading as an example, in 2023, the STEP Nepali team conducted a total of 1003 audits across 192 suppliers associated with 24 exporters affiliated with STEP in Nepal. As part of its commitment to fair trade standards, STEP facilitated meetings with the 24 exporters to address compliance issues and improve living and working conditions. Through these regular audits and engagements, positive and enduring relationships are nurtured, establishing a foundation for long-lasting partnerships.

A Day in the Life of a STEP Auditor

“I wake up at 6:30am to head out for field visits. If any surprise visits are planned, I don’t contact the suppliers; instead, I directly visit the workshop. For regular audits, however, I call the suppliers, schedule a time, and proceed with the audit.”

—Ashma Basnet, STEP Auditor

STEP auditors like Prithibi, Ashma and Dhamala from the Nepal team based in Kathmandu play a pivotal role in enforcing compliance. Conducting regular visits to weaving workshops, they assess working conditions while also acting as communicators, bridging the gap between STEP and weavers as well as producers and weavers.

“A typical day for me involves engaging with weavers, conducting personal conversations, and ensuring adherence to STEP standards.”

—Prithibi, STEP Auditor

Diana, a STEP auditor of the Afghanistan team, underscores the importance of cultural assimilation during audits, emphasizing, “As STEP auditors, we consciously immerse ourselves in the weavers’ culture. This involves dressing in a manner that aligns with local styles or reflects what the weavers wear. Our conduct and communication are adjusted to be smooth, simple, and encouraging.” In conclusion, Diana highlighted: “Understanding and respecting the traditions and cultures of the weavers is crucial for auditors. Without this understanding, effectively carrying out audits is not possible.”

“Understanding and respecting the traditions and cultures of the weavers is crucial for auditors. Without this understanding, effectively carrying out audits is not possible.”

—Diana, STEP Auditor

In 2023, the Nepali field auditors demonstrated significant success by rectifying 194 specific non-compliances and verifying the implementation of appropriate corrective actions. Their role involves addressing issues such as wage increments, conducting research on productivity and wages to evaluate if current rates meet government minimum wage standards as well as implementing weaver empowerment programs and raising awareness about health. Additionally, they are focused on essential safety elements like the provision of First Aid boxes, meeting hygiene standards, and stocking of Fire Extinguishers.

“When we visit the workshops, suppliers share their business, financial, and lifestyle situations with us. Simultaneously, the weavers also share their problems, sorrows, and happinesses while we build rapport. These exchanges help create a bonding and trust among us and the weavers as well as the suppliers, making our work easier.”

—Umanath Dhamala, STEP Auditor

This hands-on approach allows auditors to understand challenges firsthand, providing STEP with information to uphold and improve the 10 STEP standards, creating a transparent and collaborative industry.

In the tapestry of fair trade, STEP auditors weave a story of transparency, collaboration, and trust. As guardians of fair trade, STEP auditors play a pivotal role in shaping an industry that weaves both artistry and integrity.

Get Involved

Learn more about our Certified Label
STEP Fair Trade Partners.

Support weavers by becoming a Partner in the fair trade of handmade carpets.