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[liberationtech] Silicon Sweatshops (fwd)

Todd Davies davies at
Mon Nov 30 23:20:56 PST 2009

I really like the Liberation Technology list, but am sometimes struck by 
the irony of applying technology to liberate people in countries where the 
production of technology itself is creating human rights and environmental 
problems. So I wanted to share the article below, addressing the flipside 
of ICT for development and liberation. A comprehensive approach would 
certainly have to address this as well, and it seems to me there could be 
synergy between technology for liberation and the liberation of technology 
workers. - Todd

Silicon Sweatshops

Silicon Sweatshops
Sunday 22 November 2009
by: Jonathan Adams and Kathleen E. McLaughlin  |  The Global Post

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: marissaorton,
Taipai, Taiwan — Hourly wages below a dollar. Firings with no notice.
Indifferent bosses. Labor brokers that leech away months of a worker's
hard-earned wages. A corporate shell game that leaves no one

Such conditions are widespread at the contract factories cranking out
some of the most popular gadgets on the holiday season’s gift lists,
according to labor rights activists and workers interviewed by

Whether it's your cherished iPhone, Nokia cell phone or Dell keyboard,
it was likely made and assembled in Asia by workers who have few
rights, and often toil under sweatshop-like conditions, activists say.

By the time a gadget reaches Apple's flagship store on Fifth Avenue in
New York City or any other U.S. retailer, it may have passed through
the hands of a heavily indebted Filipina migrant worker on the
graveyard shift in Taiwan, a Taiwanese "quality control" worker who'll
soon be fired without warning, and a young Chinese worker clocking 80-
hour weeks on a final assembly line, at less than a dollar an hour.

Recent years have seen a drumbeat of reports on such abuses. In 2006,
in an audit following a British media report, Apple found that workers
in a factory assembling iPods in China were working excessive overtime

Earlier this year, the Pittsburgh-based National Labor Committee, a
nonprofit human rights group, alleged that workers at a supplier to
Microsoft, Dell and other brands in Dongguan, China, were clocking
mandatory 81-hour weeks, on average. (Dell said in an email that a
"corrective action plan" has since been developed after a joint audit
of the firm with other customers. A Microsoft spokesperson said it was
investigating the supplier firm and would make any "necessary

Embarrassed companies have vowed to do better. They've drafted "codes
of conduct" for their Asian suppliers, and promised more factory
audits to catch abuses.

But here's the problem, say activists: While such codes may be great
public relations, they're not working to fix the problem. Worse, the
codes permit the big brands to pat themselves on the back, even as
workers continue to be exploited in the shadowy world of Asian
electronics supply chains.

"These codes of conduct and audits are new tools that every brand will
have, and they feel so proud of themselves," said Jenny Chan, a labor
rights activist formerly with Hong Kong labor rights group Students
and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM). "But the codes
have limits. To see fundamental change, you have to get labor groups
involved and gain the trust of workers. Otherwise it's just a cat-and-
mouse game between auditors and suppliers."

The problem is compounded by a lack of transparency. Asian electronics
supply chains are notoriously murky. Contractors shift orders across
borders and between factories and subcontractors, and many major
brands treat their supplier list as top-secret information.

That makes it difficult to pin down who's making what for whom and,
therefore, difficult to fix blame when allegations of abuse come to
light. When a factory catches flak from labor rights groups and
negative media coverage, the big customers often cut orders or sever
business ties — a surgical strategy that activists say fails to
address underlying, systemic problems in the industry.

Apple’s response: “We take corrective actions when required”

Even by the industry's own assessment, its codes are routinely ignored.

In its latest annual report, the Electronic Industry Citizenship
Coalition (EICC) published results of joint audits in 2007 and 2008.
(EEIC members employ some 3.4 million workers. Members include Apple,
Dell and Hewlett-Packard.) It found rampant violations of its code of
conduct on working hours and wages and benefits.

Or take Apple's own findings. In its latest "supplier responsibility"
update, published in February 2009, Apple found that nearly 60 percent
of audited suppliers violated its code of conduct guidelines on work
hours and days off.

Other common violations included under-paying for overtime and
deducting salary as punishment. And Apple found a few factories that
falsified records, employed under-aged laborers and hired workers who
had paid recruitment fees exceeding the legal limit.

All of that raises a question: Why aren't the big brands being tougher
in enforcing their codes?

Apple insists it is doing a lot. "Our audits are done across all our
suppliers," said Apple spokesperson Jill Tan, in a phone interview.
"It's a pretty rigorous process, and we take corrective actions as and
when required. We audit aggressively, and post all results on our

The company's code is a "dynamic document which we continually
update," Tan said, and audits are done both by Apple itself, and third-
party experts.

Asked how Apple responds to those who say it's hiding behind codes
that are ineffective in securing workers' basic rights, Tan said,
"It's not just a matter of posturing, we look into this very
meticulously. To me, we're pretty open. We don't see how we can
provide more information beyond what's already available."

"I'm not sure there are many manufacturers or vendors out there who
audit as aggressively as we do," said Tan. "I'm not sure there are
many out there who take this as seriously as we do. Have you come
across any other companies that provide this much detail in their

(Apple declined GlobalPost’s request to go beyond the public relations
department and interview Bob Bainbridge, the firm's director of social
responsibility for suppliers.)

Dell also rejected the idea that industry codes aren't effective. "We
take exception to that," said spokesman David Frink. "Given the size
and breadth of the global supply chain, full implementation of these
important standards is a long-term effort to which Dell is fully
committed," the firm said in a later email.

Our investigation

In May, GlobalPost covered reports of labor abuses at just one Taiwan
electronics firm believed to supply Apple, Nokia and Motorola at its
factories in Taiwan and China. Since then, we’ve interviewed 12
current and former workers at this same company. We heard the
following new allegations:

For Taiwanese workers, routine violations of Apple and industry codes
of conduct on work hours, days off, overtime, worker complaint
mechanisms and the right to organize; For Chinese workers, violations
of a major electronic industry group's code of conduct on all of the
above, and allegations of under-aged labor; For Filipina migrant
workers, "placement fees" far in excess of Taiwan regulations, with
fees and deductions amounting to nearly a full year's salary — a
"core" violation of Apple's code.
These allegations, which are documented throughout this series, are by
no means limited to this one supplier. Taiwan's labor broker system
applies to many Southeast Asians who come to work on the island. And
labor rights groups have done numerous studies of the scope of the

But the news is not all bleak.

In our reporting, we heard sincere commitments to deal with these
issues by frustrated executives who struggle with these complex
economic realities. We also learned of a groundbreaking project to
improve conditions at a Taiwan supplier for HP that appeared to have
excellent results. Though limited in scope, the project offers some
degree of hope that the big electronics brands can do more to fix the

This story included reporting from Dongguan, China.

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