Students lead radical shift in tech manufacturing workers rights
For over a year, a group of workers, their families and trade unionists have been staging a sit-in at Samsung’s South Korean global exhibition space. Organised under the banner of Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry (SHARPS), the group have accused Samsung of causing the deaths of over 70 workers due to inadequate safety measures in their factories, exposing staff to dangerous and toxic chemicals. The group are calling for compensation for workers and their families, as well as for full disclosure of the chemicals Samsung require workers to use in manufacturing. All of this has taken place alongside an international campaign to over-turn Samsung’s no-union policy, whereby the company utilises a series of means of intimidation to stop workers throughout their supply chain exercising their right to forming unions.
While global ICT brands portray their industry as being a beacon of modernity, bringing high-tech products to an ever more connected international market of consumers, these kinds of practices are not unique to South Korea or Samsung. Rather, they are endemic throughout the industry, demonstrating an archaic attitide to workers’ rights. Whether it’s the suicides at Foxconn factories in China, alleged attempts to bust unions in the Philippines or the exploitation of migrant workers placing people in forms of debt bondage and modern slavery in Malaysia, the unpleasant realities of working conditions in complex webs of suppliers, sub-contractors and multinational corporations are being exposed with increasing regularity.
Three years ago, in this context of sweatshop practices in the manufacturing of contemporary electronics products, an independent labour monitoring organisation for the ICT sector – Electronics Watch – was established. Electronics Watch works with public sector organisations in Europe and elsewhere to write basic standards of labour rights into their contracts with suppliers, monitors factories for compliance against those standards, and assists public sector bodies to use their influence to achieve remedies for any violations of workers’ rights that are found.
The model acknowledges three crucial elements to improve working conditions in the global electronics industry recognising that: the industry can’t reform its own practices alone; institutions with multi-million pound contracts have far more power and influence over multi-national corporations than individual consumers do; and the process of achieving change must involve the voices and experiences of workers themselves. While this might not seem groundbreaking, it is a radical departure from previous efforts to address issues within the industry.
Under the spotlight of media reporting and international NGOs, electronics companies sought to use Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives to be seen to be taking action, including through a practice known as social auditing. This is a process commonly used by companies engaged in manufacturing generally where for-profit firms are paid to conduct factory investigations, to assess working conditions and health and safety.
These audits are undertaken on a short-term, one-off basis and, like a school on Ofsted day, factory managers have the ability to ensure that everything seems perfect on the day of an audit visit, irrespective of what takes place every other day of the year. As David Foust Rodriguez of Mexican labour rights organisation CEREAL has highlighted “these audits seldom show more structural, systematic and procedural difficulties faced by workers, such as lack of freedom of association and collective bargaining.”
As such, it has been widely recognised that social audits have thus far failed to provide protection for workers. For example, prior to the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh which led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people, the factory had been given a compliance rating by leading social auditing firms.
Given ongoing failures at industry reform, Electronics Watch and its worker-driven monitoring mechanism is vital. By instigating processes by which workers can inititate investigations without fear of reprisal, engaging with labour rights organisations in electronics exporting countries and acting on behalf of public sector affiliates in Europe and elsewhere, Electronics Watch has shown an ability to identify systemic issues in supply chains and successfully secure improvements in affected workers’ lives. From the Philippines to Thailand and from China to the Czech Republic, Electronics Watch is already putting money back in the pockets of electronics factory workers.
Since its inception, it has been organisations in the UK’s public sector that have been a primary driving force behind Electronics Watch’s progress. In 2014, the University of Edinburgh became the first organisation to join, and earlier this year, every University and College in Scotland joined too, through their purchasing consortium, APUC. By doing so, they joined dozens of other institutions in the UK, including 9 Universities in England and Wales, as well as Transport for London and Tower Hamlets Borough Council in coming together and making clear that they won’t sit by and watch sweatshop practices go unabated in the electronics they purchase.
These affiliations have been down to a number of factors. A healthy mix of legislative incentives such as the Modern Slavery Act, sector benchmarking tools including the People & Planet University League, and proactive, pioneering procurement teams have been at the heart of driving this agenda. A crucial ingredient of that mix has been the campaigning and pressure placed on decision makers by students across the UK.
Right now, students at Sheffield, Southampton, Oxford, Kent, Oxford Brookes and many more are pushing their universities to affiliate to Electronics Watch. Each year, People & Planet runs a 5 day training event for students looking to stand in solidarity with sweatshop workers, as well as engage in wider campaigns for social and climate justice. As Electronics Watch grows in strength, so too does the movement for justice for sweatshop workers.