Pressure on the electronics industry continues

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Photo by KarlMarx - Flickr

[This post by Anne Lindsay was originally published on the Ethical Trading Initiative Blog as a guest post.]

This summer the business pages have been dominated by two stories about the electronic industry – the launch of the new Apple iPhone and the growing number of worker suicides at Chinese sites of Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer where iPhones are produced.

The two stories collided when Steve Jobs was asked about the Foxconn deaths in an interview at the ‘All things Digital’ Conference in California in June. The Apple CEO responded by saying “Foxconn is not a sweatshop.”

In August a thirteenth Foxconn worker fell to her death. Shortly afterwards the company’s official labour union in China held a massive “treasure your life” rally for thousands of workers in Guangdong.

The Foxconn suicides force us to ask uncomfortable questions about the working conditions of people who make our consumer goods – the latest mobile phones and computers which many of us see as essential for modern life.

We will probably never fully understand the motives of the young people in China who have taken their lives so tragically. The number of deaths to date suggests that it is time for a comprehensive, independent and transparent investigation into working conditions at Foxconn.

I would argue that it is also time for a radical rethink of the whole approach that the electronic industry is taking to working conditions in its supply chains.

When CAFOD launched its Clean Up Your Computer campaign back in 2004, our supporters were surprised to hear that there were workers in the cutting edge computer industry who had experienced the same abuses as “sweatshop” garment workers, e.g. discrimination, low wages, hours of compulsory overtime, unsafe working conditions.

We had many requests from people who wanted us to recommend a “fairtrade computer” and were disappointed to learn that because of the nature of the electronics supply chain, no product could guarantee it had been produced in compliance with fairtrade standards. Clean Up Your Computer inspired other public campaigns in countries such as Sweden, Switzerland and Germany and members of the GoodElectronics network are campaigning in many more countries.

Fast forward six years and, partly in response to consumer campaigning, the industry has its own Electronic Industry Code of Conduct and implementing organisation (EICC). Companies have put time and resources into the industry code – but to what extent has the EICC improved conditions for workers? Foxconn is one of the companies which has been signed up to the Electronic Industry Code of Conduct for several years now. As a first tier supplier of many other leading EICC members – including Apple, Dell, HP and Nokia – Foxconn’s Chinese sites must have undergone a number of audits.

Globally, thousands of electronics workers still face a daily routine characterised by a high pressure environment where hours of overtime are the norm. Codes and audits alone do not change the power dynamic in the workplace. One of the biggest areas of disagreement between civil society groups and the EICC has been on the issue of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Ensuring electronics workers are able to exercise their fundamental rights to join genuine unions and negotiate without being dismissed has certainly not been a priority for the EICC.

Flexible manufacturing models to reduce costs have resulted in precarious work for many women and men in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Mexico. Electronics workers that I have spoken with report feeling powerless because they are recruited on short term temporary contracts often via employment agencies which mean that they can lose their jobs at very short notice.

As labour rights organisation SACOM notes, the situation in China is exacerbated by the fact that many electronics workers are migrants from other parts of the country with very limited rights to support or benefits. From fieldwork research in late July in Shenzhen, SACOM found that there were many students from vocational schools who are working at Foxconn’s plants.

It is not just trade unions or NGOs asking questions about the effectiveness of the industry’s response to supply chain abuses. In July 2010 40 socially responsible investor groups wrote to the EICC, calling for change. One of the signatories, Adam Kanzer, Managing Director and General Counsel for Domini Social Investments, commented: “The Foxconn suicides are the latest reverberations of an alarm that has been ringing for many years now. The foundation of our global manufacturing system is not sustainable. Without strong investor support for meaningful change on the factory floor, we will continue to drift from crisis to crisis.”

The events in China have been a reminder for both individual consumers and high-street retailers that the latest must-have gadget can have a human cost. Will these tragedies lead to living wages and better working conditions for more workers in the global electronics industry?

In my view, this will only happen if brands and suppliers recognise the need for profound structural changes, including rethinking employment practices and giving workers themselves more control over improving their pay and conditions.

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