United Trades Exclusive
By Kate Gatto
When it comes to consumer electronics there is a lot to be considered. You may first be confused by the idea that a technology company could have issues with the way that it treats its workers. After all, in the United States big technology companies such as Google and Facebook, are seen as fun places to work. American-based workers in these companies are often pictured eating complimentary meals and frolicking in recreation areas.
The truth be told, the problem of labor fairness in the consumer electronics industry is not on the local side. It is in the companies that make and assemble the products, most often overseas, for sweatshop labor rates, no benefits, and usually in deplorable working conditions that need to be considered.
If you follow the national news at all, then the odds are good that you’ve heard of a company called Foxconn. The working conditions at Foxconn, a major supplier of well-known Apple products, have been so poor that workers would opt to end their lives, rather than continue with the company.
After a rash of these self destructive incidences, a review procedure was put in place that was designed to help ensure that the companies 288,800 workers are not being subjected to any inhumane conditions. Though it is important to note that the average salary for these workers is between $355 and $452 each month, and working hours well beyond 40 week are not in the slightest unusual.
In this worst-case scenario, electronics labor has made some progress. A report published by eWeek suggests that with the help of outside labor organizations, progress is being made. The report states, “ongoing efforts by Apple’s largest supplier Foxconn, to implement a 15-month action plan developed following Fair Labor Organization’s (FLA) original investigation of three facilities in early 2012, appear to be resulting in positive changes for employees there. However, more work remains to be done.
Foxconn has completed all planned actions slated for implementation by Dec. 31, 2012. However, six items related to hours of work, slated for July 2013, remain to be completed. Assessors also found that there had been notable increases in the participation of workers in union committees, and a corresponding decline in management participation in such committees since the first verification visit in June 2012.”
Unfortunately for some companies the problem is not the knowledge, but the lack of knowledge that is the problem. You may have already heard of the Surface tablet created by Microsoft. What you probably do not know is that the company is not releasing the names of the companies supplying the components.
This means that any number of suppliers, and any kind of labor conditions, could be used by the company. In the absence of third-party auditors, there’s no way to know how workers are being treated.
Interestingly enough, this practice is contrary to the current stance of the suppliers of Xbox accessories. The company is the creator of an industry group known as the “Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition”. The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition currently requires the registration of any mice or keyboards designed to work with Xbox products.
Companies Doing Right
Does this mean in the world of electronics we are doomed to always deal with piecemeal, slave wage labor? Of course not. There are some companies that are treating their workers the way they should be treated. One list of electronics makers who choose to treat their workers with respect can be found at Labor 411. This list shows companies that make, or have an in-house brand of electronics, and allow their workers to unionize. The list includes the following companies:
As you look at this list you may be surprised by how short it is. Does this mean that only those suppliers are fair to their workers? No, some workers for companies are treated well even if they are not part of a union.
Research on the electronics industry done by Oekom Research AG and summarized by Green Biz shows that some companies are hitting the nail on the head when it comes to making sure that workers can live on the wages they are paid.
According to the report, “With the exception of Ricoh, Intel and Motorola Mobility, the IT industry earns dismal grades when it comes to sustainability and social practices, averaging about a D+…Office equipment maker Ricoh of Japan and chip producer Intel in the U.S. each earned a B+, the highest grade, and cell phone manufacturer Motorola Mobility earned a B…”
The organization’s report profiled over 200 companies, including all the major electronics manufacturers in the United States. If you are looking to do business with a company, you may want to look them up before you make your purchase. Let’s be honest, companies care first and foremost about the bottom line. If people refuse to buy their products because of labor issues, than the companies will change their practices.
Why This Matters
You may be wondering why all this matters to you. After all, the people being taken advantage of, and situations we refer to are hundreds, and sometimes thousands of miles away. The truth however, is when labor is devalued in other parts of the world, American companies will ship the manufacturing jobs there.
This large trend, popularly known as outsourcing, not only takes jobs out of American hands, but also leads to a culture where workers are considered a line item. We end up with the labor environment where every company is only looking for the lowest bidder in order to spend the least amount on its workers. To think that this point of view does not extend beyond the bottommost layer of the company would be shortsighted at best. By protecting the value of all labor, we protect the value of all our labor.