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Should you buy an ethical smartphone?

Human Rights

Blaming individual consumers for supporting the brands of Apple, Samsung, Sony and others complicit in frequent labour rights abuses can make you feel self-righteous when you can afford the ‘ethical’ choice. But it is ineffective at creating any lasting change for the majority of electronics workers who work for the ‘big evil brands’ – and making the solutions exclusive does nothing to build wider support for the workers’ rights movement.

Electronics workers across the sector are frequently earning too little, working extreme hours, handling hazardous and cancerous chemicals and unable to unionize and fight for better conditions without fear of abuse or loss of work.

This needs to be about challenging all brands to conform to the norm of workers’ rights

And we know that the brands themselves won’t improve conditions for workers. This can be seen all too easily with the frequent worker protests across China which has one of the largest electronics manufacturing sectors and where many reports have documented workers working in unsafe health conditions and or in forced labour: in debt from from high and unexpected ‘recruitment fees’ in the factories of brands such as Dell, HP and Apple.

Which is why we need to start creating our own solutions to change these systems, working with the affected workers.

This means more than just choosing to buy from ‘ethical’ firms, whose reach is a drop in the ocean compared to the big brands (Apple have according to some estimates as much as 40 per cent of the global phone market). Instead, this needs to be about challenging all brands to conform to the norm of workers’ rights, through independent worker-driven monitoring organizations with large scale support – rather than carving out small oases of respect for workers’ rights and abandoning the rest.

By working together, rather than just acting as individual consumers, we can have a real impact on workers’ rights in the industry. The cost of individual devices – a laptop, a mobile – is a pittance compared to what businesses and public institutions spend: UK universities alone spend between £3 and £12 million each year on electronics.

Independent workers' rights monitoring: poisonous industry.
Photo: SETEM Catalunya

Public institutions have massive purchasing power and therefore huge potential to have an impact on workers’ rights in the electronics industry. One in five computers in Europe is bought by the public sector – in 2007 that amounted to €94 billion, a number which has only increased since. By working together buyers can use their collective purchasing power to make brands across the board listen and change.

Since 2015 Electronics Watch has existed to do just this for public institutions – such as Transport for London, University of Durham, and city councils including Barcelona and Utrecht – in the electronics industry worldwide. The organization conducts independent worker-driven monitoring research and uses this on behalf of its public sector affiliates to reveal the real working conditions of factories and negotiate with brands to improve labour conditions.

With a collective purchasing power from across Europe and worldwide this model of bargaining for change has improved working conditions in factories employing 100,000 workers in the past year alone. These wins include securing a guaranteed minimum wage for temporary indirect workers and reducing weekend work at a factory in the Czech Republic, ending the practice of using Chinese student interns to work in factories entirely unrelated to their subject in order to graduate. Electronics Watch has also been working with workers and other organizations around the world to raise awareness of and try to stop the use of cancerous chemicals in electronics production.

The reason for the effectiveness of Electronics Watch, and this model in general, is that it is worker-driven and independent of the brands who permit the existence of dismal and often illegal working conditions. Being worker-driven guarantees that grievances raised by workers are listened to and investigated and that workers are involved in solutions to their problems. With support from buyers, trade unions can be established in factories for workers themselves to organize and bargain for their rights.

Until trade unions are the norm and respected across the industry, monitoring organizations working together with electronics buyers and workers is a crucial way of forcing brands, caught in the middle, to make changes.

It is vital that this research should be genuinely independent. Brands may say that workers do not work more than 12 hour a day and are told their work schedule weeks in advance, but only an independent organization can verify this and see if this is genuinely workers’ experience. With the threat of reprisals against trade unions across much of the sector it is crucial that workers feel safe and able to tell their stories to someone not linked to the company they work for, and equally important that their confidentially is respected and their concerns acted on.

To give an example, Cividep, an organization that support workers’ rights education and campaigns for corporate accountability in India conducted an independent worker-driven investigation on behalf of Electronics Watch across the Indian region of Tamil Nadu, a hub of electronics production. In one factory, it was found that workers were unable to join a trade union and feared backlash if they tried to form one. Monthly committee meetings with management had been dissolved – and yet the company still claimed to have no union unrest, ‘because the management is in constant touch with workers to ensure their well-being’.

Or perhaps it is because they don’t allow unions in the first place.

Similarly, when the Migrant Workers’ Rights Network in Thailand found Burmese migrant workers were having their passports seized on arrival, and that they were being made to pay high ‘recruitment fees’ before they would be allowed to leave, constant monitoring by Electronics Watch ensured workers’ passports were returned and fees compensated. Continued monitoring is helping to make sure this treatment of migrant workers is not repeated.

With support for workers and regular monitoring from in-country organizations, coupled with communicating findings and other issues to buyers and the public, this model can hold companies to account. Through independent worker-driven monitoring we can start to dig deep and build the foundations for improved workers’ rights across the sector, working together with workers, rather within a small ethical paradise of one or two small companies.

At the Mobile World Congress, currently under way in Barcelona, the world is goggling at the latest shiny gadgets. But we should be demanding that if technology can improve so rapidly, so should workers’ rights.

Photos: SETEM Catalunya

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