Tech Giants Must Let Workers Join Unions To Stop Further Labour Exploitation

24 JUN 2020

Many workers in the electronics supply chains who make the phones and laptops we are dependent on during the COVID-19 crisis face exploitative working conditions. Ethical Corp reports on the exploitation of labour in the tech industry and what steps must be taken to halt it.

Electronic devices may have become essential for our daily lives but the workers who make them are not treated as such. And the risk of exploitative working conditions is being exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Some workers face the loss of wages or being asked to remain at or return to work despite health and safety concerns. In the case of Indian electronics workers, these worries are coupled with the threat of non-payment of wages. (Link via original reporting)

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

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

But implementation lags some way behind policy. Only 13 out of 49 companies (27 per cent) disclose evidence that fees have been repaid to workers in their supply chains and not one of the companies assessed sets out a comprehensive process to stop workers being charged these fees in the first place. On the contrary, companies reported finding that supply chain workers were having to pay fees of up to 200 per cent of their monthly wages just to obtain a job.

Exploitative recruitment persists in electronics supply chains and companies are demonstrably unable to prevent such exploitation, a strong argument could be made for workers to turn to another solution: forming unions and collective bargaining with their employers. 

Why? Because 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”. (Link via original reporting)

In places 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. In April, for example, it was announced that 1.5 million workers across Tunisia’s private sector - from industries such as construction, agriculture, and metal and garment manufacturing - will not lose their jobs and will receive a wage during COVID-19-related closures. 

This was as a result of an agreement between a local union, a trade confederation, and the government. During April in Japan, 56 unions secured wage increases for metal workers as well as minimum wage agreements. (Link via original reporting)

Despite these positive outcomes, 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 particularly concerning 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. Additionally, workers currently facing new challenges, from companies using the COVID-19 crisis as a pretext to dismiss or clamp down on unionised workers. (Links via original reporting)

After three rounds of benchmarks, Ethical Corp asks what hope there is for workers in electronics supply chains exposed to or in conditions of forced labour?

Though significant progress is needed, it notes that 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 like 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. And, while remedy reportedly 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. (Links via original reporting)

In addition, companies such as HP provided evidence of putting workers closer to the centre of its approach by disclosing outcomes for workers in its supply chains, such as a reduction of working hours from 12 to eight hours a day and transitioning workers from temporary hires to direct hires to avoid discrimination and unfair treatment.

As a further sign of progress, the Responsible Business Alliance - the largest business association in the electronics sector - is growing its membership and engagement with companies across sectors, including those like the automotive and apparel sectors, where it is more common to engage with unions. (Link via original reporting)

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to make electronic devices invaluable to us, companies in the ICT sector must step up and take a more worker-centric approach, in particular, enabling workers in their supply chains to exercise their right to associate and bargain collectively. Ultimately, it is the workers themselves who best understand the conditions on the ground and the solutions required to eradicate abuse.

Source: Ethical Corp