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Why worker-led monitoring is needed to challenge electronic sweatshops

Human Rights

Electronics factory in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China. Yellow suits are managers. The glasses are eye protection from the bright light used to photo-cure the epoxy that holds the fiber optic components in place. Steve Jurvetson under a Creative Commons Licence

An alternative global strategy for the protection and promotion of workers’ human rights in ICT supply chains is emerging, writes David Foust Rodríguez.

Since the seventies, and particularly from the nineties onwards, transnational Information and Communications Technology (ICT) companies have established a discourse of corporate social responsibility, accompanied by voluntary codes of conduct, verified by social audits contracted with specialized for-profit firms. However, these codes are limited in their ability to protect workers from labour abuses, exposure to toxic chemicals, poverty wages, and other problems endemic to current business models. A real alternative is monitoring by workers, for workers – funded by public purchasers in the Global North, who use the goods we make in the Global South.

In 2004, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) released its report ‘Clean up your computer’, exposing serious violations of fundamental human rights in ICT producing countries. The electronics industry responded with the formation of a global membership association, the Electronic industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), made up of the leading electronics brands and factories from HP to Foxconn. The EICC has produced a voluntary code of conduct for factories and brands producing electronics product, which started weak but has been progressively strengthened. In an effort, to improve their code of conduct, and provide more sense for what it means to be a member of the EICC, the organization has established a new system of four membership categories, each requiring different levels of commitments and requirements from brands and factories.

Nonetheless, the voluntary nature of this initiative, and others like it, is a major constraint to the protection and promotion of workers’ human rights. Human Rights Watch, in its report ‘Without rules. A failed approach to corporate accountability,’ demonstrated one of the biggest limitations of this type of codes:

‘Voluntary initiatives all face the same crucial limitations: they are only as strong as their corporate members choose to make them, and they don’t apply to companies that don’t want to join.’

Outside of EICC efforts, individual companies also spend millions in promoting ethical depictions of their business conduct. Corporate social responsibility initiatives taken by individual companies are designed to enhance the reputation and strengthen loyalty to a particular brand. The direct consequence is that companies have learned to adapt their discourse and initiatives to cater for public opinion. Their public relations team learn to say – and advertise – what they think people want to hear, without making any fundamental changes to the way production is organized.

Numerous organizations, academics and journalists, have documented the ways in which corporate social responsibility audits are limited to show a picture of what companies want you to see what happens in a factory. In the garments industry, factories in Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Karachi (Pakistan) have collapsed weeks after being certified by leading social auditors. In addition, these audits seldom show more structural, systematic and procedural difficulties faced by workers, such as lack of freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Just last month, on 14 September 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai said:

‘Poor enforcement of these rights in the workplace can also exacerbate global inequality, poverty, violence, child and forced labour, and directly contributes to problems such as human trafficking and slavery… The trend of prioritizing economic and corporate interests at the expense of workers’ rights is not only a rights issue; it has the potential to undermine the viability of the world’s economic system.’

An alternative that complements and contrasts the optics of audits are monitoring projects which focus on empowering workers to interview other workers in secure facilities outside the factory, preserving their anonymity – and therefore their safety from reprisals. These monitoring activities are usually presented in the context of a broader global strategy for the protection and promotion of workers’ human rights that includes training, organizing, campaigning, legal counselling and litigation.

My organization, Center for Labor Reflection and Action (CEREAL) is engaged in promoting best practice around worker-led monitoring, and also engages in worker outreach programmes that promote awareness about rights, gender discrimination, and exposure to toxic chemicals, among other things. We work with Electronics Watch – a coordinating body for public purchasers in the Global North – who are demanding improved conditions in ICT supply chains. Worker led monitoring can be a source of hope for decency, improving lives hugely.

Partially drawn from CEREAL’s Seventh report on working conditions in the Mexican Electronics Industry, ‘Beyond voluntary codes and audits: a challenge for the electronic industry’, July 2016.

David Foust Rodríguez is Coordinator of the Center for Labor Reflection and Action and member of the Steering Committee of the international network GoodElectronics. He can be emailed at: [email protected]

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