Can Consumer Campaigns Actually Improve Tech-Sector Labor Practices?

Can Consumer Campaigns Actually Improve Tech-Sector Labor Practices?

Can Consumer Campaigns Actually Improve Tech-Sector Labor Practices?

The Electronics Watch coalition has a plan: harness consumer power to hold tech giants accountable.


Behind Silicon Valley’s glossy ads and gleaming products stands an army of exploited manufacturing workers. As customers flood Apple’s stores with the launch of each new phone, a steady trickle of reports has brought to light the egregious labor violations and sickeningly fast production speeds that go into creating the electronic devices we “can’t live without.”

But even if we feel our tech products are indispensable, poor working conditions in the supply chain are not inevitable. The tech giants are incredibly attuned to the desires of their consumers, and many of those buying the products are increasingly asking for ethically sourced products. What’s lacking is an industry-wide system that allows social justice concerns to be effectively integrated into production processes with the same seamless efficiency as our color preferences. In Europe, a coalition of labor and consumer advocacy groups is developing a framework for European Union governments to do just that, by using their bulk-purchasing power to change the way labor issues factor into the cost of doing business.

The EU already has trade protocols in place for specific human rights violations, like conflict minerals. Now, the Electronics Watch coalition’s new industry-mapping report presents a system for making the EU’s contract deals match its rhetoric for a much wider industry.

The large-scale purchase of computers and other electronic products by EU agencies gives the institution considerable clout in the global market. If member states collectively pressured big tech brands to ensure stronger labor protections and higher wages, that could lead the market to put a premium on accountability in the supply chain, and union rights in Chinese factories, or fairer contracts for Malaysian migrant workers. Though brands outsource manufacturing labor to smaller suppliers, the Apples and Samsungs of the world are ultimately responsible for setting price points throughout the production chain, as well as workers’ paychecks.

Historically, factory monitoring protocols have largely been handled by the brands leading the industry. This has generated reams of glossy reports on corporate social responsibility campaigns, but often little change in workers’ wages or workplace rights. For example, China Labor Watch has repeatedly uncovered evidence of child labor in Samsung’s supplier factories, yet the company has repeatedly tried and seemingly failed to stamp out the clandestine hiring of underaged workers by suppliers. Underlying this pattern of flouting “corporate social responsibility” is that the industry-led efforts are by definition voluntary, and thus always tied to the corporate bottom line.

EW envisions a relatively independent framework based on leveraging domestic consumer power in tandem with grassroots activism in the manufacturing regions. Under this model, public procurement would build into procurement contracts a standard labor code of conduct, and this would be consistently enforced through collaborations through local watchdogs.

Drawing on industry research and field investigations, EW’s report identifies various regulatory blind spots in tech exporting countries (largely concentrated in China, with smaller market shares in South Korea, Malaysia and other countries).

First, workers earn extremely low wages and are driven to work excessive overtime to cover basic needs. Their income is further undermined by massive wage theft, as employers arbitrarily dock workers’ pay or undercount their hours. Workers also struggle with unhealthy working conditions, with a high risk of developing cancer and other occupational diseases due to toxic exposure and lack of protective gear.

And if a worker wants to challenge an unscrupulous employer, “corporate grievance mechanisms are few and ineffective,” while unions are often either nonexistent or, in the case of China, government-controlled. Workers who seek to organize autonomously risk suppression and retaliation.

Amid these structural forces, which systematically drive the downward spiral of labor standards across the Global South, EW envisions a new set of consumer standards, which revolves around ethical pressure from institutional buyers. The EW is developing an industry-wide code of labor conduct, to be rolled out in 2015, aimed at fostering industry-wide progress on labor rights. The system marshals governments’ consumer clout using a model similar to campus-based student campaigns against sweatshop-made college products. But the accord is backed by a comprehensive, autonomous auditing system in the source countries, paired with local advocacy work for labor reform.

Europe’s total estimated public spending on tech products was about 94 billion euros in 2007. Tying that investment to concrete improvements in labor conditions could exert significant influence on the industry and, over time, bend the cost curve. Currently, according to EW, “social criteria are not yet perceived as enough of a competitive advantage. To apply the pressure and the leverage they have, public procurers with an interest in socially responsible ICT products need to tread a common path.”

From Europe, EW seeks to build out a global network of activist groups to provide “long-term monitoring and improvement of affiliate factories,” rather than “superficial one-time spot checks.” Local auditors will implement “surveys, monitoring, investigations and improvements in factories producing goods for public sector affiliates,” as well as establishing “a Europe-wide database, collating information on distributors, brands, and factories.” In addition, the group will press public organizations to arrange procurement deals that include “responsible purchasing practices such as sufficient lead times and pricing that are effectively in line with the commitment to respect human rights.”

To prevent conflict of interest, financing would come from purchasing institutions, not manufacturers, and the institutions will not be superficially “rewarded” for a clean record on labor rights. Frederick Johannison of the EW coalition member Danwatch, explains via e-mail, “EW doesn’t give out certificates but ensures long term processes of improvements. So public procurers don’t pay for approval or certification. One of the main differences is that EW is independent from the brands, unlike normal private auditors.”

The EW initiative also incorporates collaboration with local labor organizations to help build campaigns at the grassroots level. In the end, nothing is more effective for fighting labor exploitation in factories than worker-led direct resistance. And currently, labor militancy seems to be building in exporting countries like China. According to Bjorn Claeson, an EW consultant with the International Labor Rights Forum, “sustainable change in a workplace is possible to the extent that workers are organized and can report on violations, demand investigations and contribute to solutions. Social auditors can never take the place of workers who are organized and empowered to monitor violations of their own safety and their own rights.”

It’s unclear whether Electronics Watch can drive major reforms in tech manufacturing, but a more ethical public procurement system can create the political space for social movements to challenge the industry status quo. If a transnational consumer-labor alliance can put pressure on brands from both ends of a massive market, the balance of power on the factory floor might finally start to shift.


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