Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Electronics Makers Have Worst Labor Practices of Any Industry, Says Report

Ira Glass resurrects a debate about treatment of workers at Foxconn.

  • January 9, 2012

Mining, textiles, retail—these are the industries that are most likely to violate worker’s rights, right? Nope— turns out the electronics industry is worse, according to a recent report from Oekom, a sustainable investment research firm. (For more on that report, check out the breakdown of its findings at GreenBiz.)

The appearance of monologist / investigative reporter / anti-Apple agitator Mike Daisey on the most recent episode of This American Life is leading to a whole new wave of awareness of a stark fact of electronics manufacturing: There is no “Fair Trade” standard for our electronics, even though industry watchers have been calling for one ever since the well-publicized suicides at FoxConn, China’s largest manufacturer of electronics.

If you think about it, it’s mind boggling that we can buy Fair Trade coffee, tea and chocolate, “conflict-free” diamonds and clothing manufactured by companies happy to trumpet their labor practices, but no electronics manufacturer seems to have taken the slightest (public) notice of the conditions under which their goods are manufactured.

Yet exploitative labor practices and unaccountable manufacturers are exactly what we should expect, argues Richard Locke at Boston Review, because the kind of turnover consumers demand in their electronics— better, faster, newer—mandates those practices.

In response [to the average 8-month life of a cell phone] brands and even suppliers have developed practices that protect themselves, including pull-based ordering systems that signal that products should be assembled only after they are purchased at some retail outlet, just-in-time delivery of components needed to assemble the products rapidly, and “flexible” labor practices that enable factories quickly to hire and fire assembly workers in response to fluctuations in consumer demand and production orders.

But these practices place a greater burden on the workers assembling the products. In other words, our desire for the latest model creates enormous volatility in consumer markets that can only be managed through a set of business practices that inevitably leads to excess working hours, low wages, and unhealthy working conditions for millions, who are often women migrant workers.

Locke’s argument is interesting, but it’s not the whole story. There are other industries that are all about disposability and price—think of fashion—that have come up with ways to treat at least a subset of their workers more humanely.

It’s hard not to look at the situation and wonder why companies like Apple, Samsung, HTC, Motorolla (now owned by Google) and Microsoft can’t figure out a way to direct just a small portion of their margins toward making working conditions more humane. The fact that there is nothing like a Fair Trade certification standard for this industry has got to be part of the problem—if it existed, it could probably shame them into acting, just as Greenpeace’s bad report card for Apple apparently inspired change at the company.

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