Comment: Felicitas Weber of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre says while there has been some progress on addressing modern slavery by electronics companies, implementation lags policy

“I even have had to pay [my employer] money at the end of the month instead of getting money.” That’s a quote from Batsa, a 25-year-old Nepalese worker in an electronics factory in Malaysia. As non-profit research centre Danwatch notes, Batsa had around $1,800 deducted from his salary over the course of 18 months, the equivalent of eight months’ wages, allegedly to fund a new work permit.

Many workers in electronics supply chains who make the phones and laptops we rely on during the Covid-19 pandemic face exploitative working conditions. While our electronic devices have become essential, the workers who make them are not treated as such. In fact, the risk of exploitative working conditions is being exacerbated by the pandemic, with some workers facing loss of wages, or conversely, being asked to stay at or return to work despite health and safety concerns. In the case of Indian electronics workers, this is coupled with the threat of non-payment of wages.

The electronics manufacturing company Jabil, a supplier to many of the largest tech companies, laid off 190 workers at the end of May, “despite a support package from the Italian government that bans layoffs until mid-August”, according to Danwatch. A migrant worker in Vietnam reports that, rather than being able to support their families, workers are having to ask their families to send them food.

The right to freely associate is a prerequisite for eliminating forced labour as it allows workers to challenge abusive conditions

KnowTheChain, a collaboration between the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Humanity United, Sustainalytics, and Verité, assessed the efforts of the largest 49 global companies in this sector to address forced labour risks in their supply chains. Our third assessment (after 2016 and 2018) finds that most companies have improved, with policies against passport retention and worker-paid recruitment fees, (which can leave workers in debt bondage), becoming the norm.

Yet implementation lags behind policy. Only 13 out of 49 companies (27%) disclose evidence that fees have been repaid to workers in their supply chains, and no company sets out a comprehensive process to stop workers being charged such fees in the first place. In fact, companies reported finding that supply chain workers were having to pay fees of up to 200% of their monthly wages in order to obtain a job.

With exploitative recruitment persisting in electronics supply chains, and companies so far unable to prevent this exploitation, one could argue workers should turn to another solution: forming unions and collectively bargain with their employers. Why? The right to freely associate is a prerequisite for eliminating forced labour as it allows workers to challenge abusive conditions. Representatives of the International Labour Organization note that “in industries with strong trade union representation there are lower levels of labour exploitation, child labour, trafficking and forced labour”.

A protest in support of Chinese technology workers sacked for starting a trade union in 2018. (Credit: Sue-Lin Wong/Reuters)

Where workers can exercise their right to freely associate and bargain collectively, strong improvements in wages and working conditions have been recorded across sectors and sourcing countries. For example, in April it was announced that 1.5 million workers across Tunisia’s private sector, covering industries such as agriculture, construction, and metal and garment manufacturing, will not lose their jobs and will be paid during Covid-19-related closures. This was thanks to an agreement between a local union, a trade confederation, and the government. In the same month in Japan, 56 unions secured wage increases for metal workers as well as minimum wage agreements.

Despite this, KnowTheChain found that none of the world’s 49 largest ICT companies discloses working with local or global trade unions to support freedom of association in its supply chains. And no company provides concrete examples of how it improved freedom of association for its suppliers’ workers, such as migrant workers.

This is all the more worrisome as the top three sourcing countries for US electronics – China, Mexico, and Vietnam – are currently awarded the worst or second-worst grades by the International Trade Union Confederation. Further, workers are currently facing new challenges, with companies using the Covid-19 crisis as a pretext to dismiss or clamp down on unionised workers.

As the Covid-19 crisis makes our electronic devices ever more important, companies in the ICT sector need to take a more worker-centric approach

After three rounds of benchmarks, is there no hope for workers in electronics supply chains exposed to or in conditions of forced labour?

While much progress is needed, there are positive signs: Hewlett Packard Enterprise updated its supplier code of conduct in January 2020 to align with international labour standards. HPE is the first US-based company in the benchmark to no longer limit its freedom of association requirements for suppliers to local standards. Meanwhile, Intel discloses that it “shared suggestions with officials in Malaysia and Vietnam on procedures to protect employees’ freedom of association rights, as each country considered labour law reforms”.

Buyers such as the UK government describe working with Electronics Watch, an organisation focused on monitoring undertaken by independent organisations, such as local worker-led organisations, unions, or local civil society partners. Further, while remedy remains a rare sight, the KnowTheChain benchmark has identified an increasing number of good practices, ranging from companies engaging with affected stakeholders, to providing evidence that remedy is satisfactory to the victims, and working with suppliers in the second and third tier of the supply chain to ensure remediation.

Covid-19 restrictions have forced us to rely on electronic devices more than ever. (Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock)

In addition, companies such as HP provided evidence of having put workers more at the centre of its approach by disclosing outcomes for workers in its supply chains, such as a decrease of working hours from 12 to eight hours a day, and a transition of workers from temporary hires to direct hires to avoid discrimination and unfair treatment.

Further, the Responsible Business Alliance, the largest business association in the electronics sector, is growing its membership and engagement with companies across sectors, including from sectors such as the automotive and apparel sectors, where it is more common to engage with unions.

As the Covid-19 crisis makes our electronic devices ever more important, companies in the ICT sector need to step up and take a more worker-centric approach, and in particular enable workers in their supply chains to exercise their right to associate and bargain collectively. After all, workers are the ones who best understand both the conditions on the ground and the solutions needed to eradicate abuse.

Felicitas Weber is KnowTheChain project director at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Main picture credit: Reuters
KnowTheChain  modern slavery  electronics industry  danwatch  BHRRC  Sustainalytics  ILO  Verite  ITUC  HPE  Intel  Electronics Watch  RBA 

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