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.