Monday, November 15, 2010

Global Network Urges Electronics Supply Chain to Respect Workers’ Rights

Published on November 13, 2010

While owners of big name brands ranging from Apple to Nokia to HP and JVC Kenwood roost in their headquarters in the US or Europe and try to outdo each other in bragging about their latest research and development, their supply chain around the world is comprised of different outsourcing companies vying for the contract to manufacture their required parts at the lowest production costs possible.

MANILA – Some of the most requested gifts these coming holidays are electronic gadgets. This early, shops are already bedecked in tinsel and promos to lure buyers of the latest televisions, digicams, cellphones, music players, computers from desktop to laptop to netbook to its latest evolutions such as the likes of Ipads, e-book readers and tablet PCS.

In ads of big brand names such as Nokia, Apple, HP, Dell, Sony and Sony Ericsson, JVC, Samsung, among others, these electronic gadgets are credited for “connecting people” if not shrinking the distance between people. But while these gadgets are being marketed for doing that – connecting people – the process of producing them involves a fragmented global supply chain, where big brand names outsource their supplies and parts from different manufacturing plants located all over the world.

Big manufacturers, which are mostly located in export processing zones, strive to produce according to strict specifications but in the cheapest possible cost of production, so they could reap profits despite having lowered their contract price to bag the outsourcing contract.

The result, said an international network of labor and human rights advocates, is “sweatshop conditions under harsh management, without the protection of trade unions.” The international network calls itself as Good Electronics. When asked, Pauleen Overeem, one of its leaders, said there is really no such thing as “good electronics,” if by good you mean electronics that are manufactured in conditions that respect human and labor rights and the environment.

A global network of organizations “calling for human rights and sustainability in the electronics sector,” Good Electronics was formed in 2005. It now counts 150 organizations and individuals around the globe as members. Its members include trade unions, labor rights organizations, human rights organizations, environmental organizations, academics and researchers. They held a three-day general membership meeting in Cavite, a province south of Manila, last week, with the help of the Workers Assistance Center (WAC) of the Philippines.

Blood, Sweat and Tears in Electronic Gadgets

Electronic workers around the world are denied their basic labor rights, the Good Electronics network said in a statement released to the press after its general meeting.

“Jobs in the electronics sector are insecure, and contract labor and temporary employment are rife in manufacturing companies,” whether they are located in the Philippines or in other electronics producing countries such as China, Taiwan, Malaysia or Mexico.

While owners of big name brands ranging from Apple to Nokia to HP and JVC Kenwood roost in their headquarters in the US or Europe and try to outdo each other in bragging about their latest research and development, their supply chain around the world is comprised of different outsourcing companies vying for the contract to manufacture their required parts at the lowest production costs possible.

In China the labor conditions are such that in Foxconn 17 young workers committed suicide, 13 of whom succeeded, from January to August this year. Foxconn is a big supplier of electronic parts for popular brand names. Foxconn is a subsidiary of Hon Hai Precision Industries, which is ranked 112th in the Global 500 Companies and said to be the world’s leading electronics manufacturer. It has manufacturing plants in China, India and Taiwan.

Foxconn’s name does not appear in finished electronic gadgets, but like other supplier companies, it is crucial in the production of big brand names such as IPhones and IPads, Nokia, HP, Dell, Sony Ericsson and Motorola. In China, Foxconn has a 900,000 workforce, and the company reportedly plans to further increase its workforce to 1.3-million by next year, said a study of SACOM (Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior).

SACOM is one of the Good Electronics members who attended the network’s general meeting in the Philippines last week.

Union Rights a Global Myth?

In compiling the reports of their members from different countries, Pauleen Overeem of Good Electronics said that generally, there are “grave human rights violations in the electronics industry.” This covers the consistent reports of its members about “long working hours, no freedom of association, no collective bargaining agreement, no protection against toxic substances,” etc.

“Shamefully, leading brand name companies and their suppliers fail to comply with internationally recognized standards,” the network said. Overeem said their group is seeking to connect the well-known brand names to less-known suppliers in the globalized supply chain, as they forged “plans to confront the generally deplorable labor conditions in the industry.”

Despite the entrenched international outsourcing of production, Good Electronics is trying to seek the accountability of well-known brand owners to the appalling labor conditions in their lesser-known suppliers.

In the Nokia Special Economic Zone in Chennai, India, at least two different companies are reportedly intimidating workers, suspending them from the job, arresting them for criminal charges, or dismissing them from their jobs in response to workers’ demand for union recognition and improved working conditions.

In Taiwan, touch panel maker YFO supplying Samsung and HTC is doing union busting. Lennon Wong, of Young Fast Optoelectronic Trade Union, said they began forming a union in 2009. As soon as they did, the company sacked five union officers and 14 members. In the face of protests YFO reinstated one of the officers it dismissed, but according to Wong, she was assigned to work in an isolated place without a single co-worker, and there were several video cameras monitoring her all day. “YFO continues to persuade the remaining union officers to take some money and leave for good. Apparently, being a big supplier of Samsung, LG, HTC, Nokia, Acer and Asus, YFO does not want a union to exist in its plant at all,” Wong told Bulatlat.

He added that the forced overtime in YFO is so “terrible” that it could add up to a hundred hours in a week. He said child workers are also being forced to work, often even longer hours than the adult workers. Despite their long and toxic working conditions, all of the workers receive pay that are “lower than regulated by law,” said Wong.

In JVC Malaysia, member of the JVC-Kenwood Group producing cameras, video and audio equipment, migrant workers who complained against “wrongful deductions” from their wages are being threatened with forced repatriation, according to Charles Hector of Network of Action for Migrants.

In India, managers in Foxconn have “vehemently opposed unionism,” said Jenny Holdcroft of the International Metal Workers Federation.

In China, Debby Chan of SACOM said there is practically no freedom of association as the unions they have are “mostly appointed by the management and do not really represent the workers.”

In the Philippines, there are additional obstacles to union organizing aside from those being thrown at their fellow workers’ way in other countries. The issue of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances of labor advocates and leaders is “very exceptional,” noted Pauleen Overeem, a Dutch human rights defender from the Good Electronics.

While intimidation, repression, termination, violence and being hauled off to jail also happen to workers forming unions in other countries, Overeem observed that “it doesn’t get as bad as here in the Philippines.”

Generally, the electronics industry is a no-union, no-strike industry in the Philippines, said Cecil Tuico of WAC. With the exception of NXP (formerly Philips) in Laguna Science Industrial Park, Tuico explained that there is an “unwritten policy” against unionizing in the Philippines’ economic zones. Workers of NXP had formed their union in the 80s when its plant was still in Manila.

The Good Electronics meeting reported that it has successfully forged “plans to work on the industry workers’ right to associate (or form union), to work on their wages which are either below minimum in conditions where the minimum wages are already adjudged as below the actual amount needed to live decently.” Vowing to continue information-sharing and research, members of the network said they would also try to talk with governments and “put pressure” on electronics companies, “to make them look at the industry from the perspective of its workers.” (

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