Electronic devices are an integral part of our everyday lives. But the world behind the products is more problematic than it sometimes seems. To reduce production costs, electronic devices are largely manufactured in countries with low wages and poor standards of labor rights. A recent study based on interviews with workers provides an overview of labor law issues in the manufacture of electronic devices.
Complex supply chains and lax laws
Poor working conditions within global supply chains are constantly reported. The first thing that comes to mind for many is the exploitation of workers in the production of clothing or on large plantations. But disregard for minimal labor rights is also widely documented in the electronics industry.
Businesses usually strive to reduce their production costs in order to increase or protect their profits. The leading companies in the IT industry have succeeded in outsourcing large parts of their production to countries with low wage levels. The prevailing low standards for the protection of employees there are a key factor in keeping your costs low.
Due to the technical complexity, the supply chains in the electronics industry are very opaque. This creates a high risk that workers will be exposed to exploitative conditions. The lax laws in the Global North, where a large part of the globally produced electronic devices are bought, favor these abuses.
Forced labor in electronics manufacturing
Die International Labor Organization (ILO) defines forced labor as follows: “[…] any work or service required of a person under penalty of any penalty and for which he has not volunteered” (Convention No. 29, Article 2). In absolute figures, the number of people affected by forced labor is difficult to determine. The ILO published estimates in 2022in which 28 million people in forced labor are assumed across all sectors.
The two NGOs Electronics Watch and south wind support themselves in their report Report on working conditions in the electronics industry on interviews with workers. In addition to other abuses in manufacturing companies in the electronics industry, forced labor is an issue again and again. The information sheet provides an overview Electronics produced fairly?.
Electronics Watch has been actively investigating working conditions in the electronics industry since 2015. Milkwind has been committed to respecting human rights in global supply chains for decades. The publications were created as part of the “Fair Electronics Supply Chains” project, funded by Digitization fund of the Vienna Chamber of Labor.
- Workers are forced to work overtime to even earn minimum wage or avoid being fired.
Limitations on the Right to Cancel
- Workers are prevented from leaving a company by supervisors refusing to process their resignations or by not paying them their last month’s salary.
Deception about wages and benefits
- Workers are recruited by agencies that make false promises about wages and hide bad working conditions. It is often impossible to get out of the contracts.
- Employees have to go into debt to pay excessive fees to recruiters. Travel documents are confiscated in order to extort a repayment of the debt.
Restrictions on Free Movement
- Company management forces migrant workers to stay in factories or dormitories during their free time. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this situation.
Intimidation of trade unionists – case study Philippines
The Philippines is one of the most important countries for electronics production. Workers are paid around $6 for eight hours of work. This is not enough to feed their families. Union members are often subjected to repression, she says Julius Carandang, Secretary of the “Metal Workers Alliance of the Philippines“. For 16 years, this association of company trade unions has been supporting its members in pushing through concrete improvements. Together we succeeded in enforcing paid pandemic leave in the companies during the Corona lockdown.
Sea Jessica Bonus, who has been a solderer at MEC Electronics for 19 years works, employees are only paid $210 per month. That’s about a third of the living wage. She works twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Workers report lung diseases from soldering. Management forbids joining the union. Union members at MEC fear reprisals. Demands for wage increases have so far failed.
Public procurement as a driver of improvement
Public procurement can play an important role in a shift towards fairer working conditions. Public institutions, such as federal, state and local governments, buy a large part of the electronics production. Through consistent cooperation, public buyers can shape the market. They can demand that their suppliers implement social and ecological standards. More than 900 public institutions are already working with Electronics Watch. Experts in the Global South monitor compliance with the social criteria in cooperation with the workers.
Supply chain law to protect workers
Parts of the electronics industry have been working together since 2004 Responsible Business Alliance to improvements in decent working conditions. However, voluntary commitments by industry are not enough. The Interviews with workers show that the structural deficits could not be eliminated in this way. There is a power imbalance between large corporations in industrialized countries and workers in the Global South. That is why due diligence laws are necessary. These are intended to oblige companies to comply with fundamental labor rights along their supply chains. Human rights need laws.