Consider the tablet you bought on Black Friday, your friend’s company-issued smartphone or even the computer monitor you may be reading this blog on. Do you know how each device was made? What about where, or by who? Though we don’t typically consider the production background of the electronics we buy, it might come as a shock to know many of these devices are created in environments where exploitive labor practices are unfortunately commonplace across the supply chain.
Human rights abuse is often more egregious in the electronics sector than other industries since the parts are almost exclusively made in some of the poorest countries in the world. Some electronics companies take advantage of the cheap labor available in these regions, where thousands of men, women and children – faced with limited job options – are required to perform tedious, unethical work for low pay.
In fact, according to the International Labor Organization, an estimated 40.3 million workers are victims of modern slavery, 24.9 million of which are subject to forced labor. Unfortunately, a portion of these numbers are thanks to incidences of trafficked and forced labor in the electronics sector, particularly in poorer countries that have suffered from war, corrupt governments and inadequate job prospects.
Mitigating Labor Risk Takes a Back Seat – and Shouldn’t
Why is it that electronics companies struggle when it comes to human rights? The answer may lie in the fact that electronics organizations are inherently faced with pervasive environmental and health risks stemming from the use, disposal and recycling of components, products and equipment. Many processes in electronics manufacturing such as soldering, doping, photolithography and electroplating, among others, typically expose workers to hazardous chemical compounds (e.g. lead, chromium) that can lead to both physiological and psychological ailments. This puts workers into a precarious position as they can be exposed to 500 to 1,000 different chemicals commonly used in the production process, including carcinogens, arsenic-based substances and heavy metals.
Despite these risks, EcoVadis’ first-ever Global Risk & Performance Index found that electronics companies are combatting labor and employee health risks fairly well as compared to other industries. The index evaluated more than 20,400 companies on 21 different CSR criteria. Each company received a cumulative score, based on a scale of zero to 100, where 25 represents basic CSR coverage, 50 represents standard, 75 comprehensive and 100 exceptional.
The report found that the Manufacturing Advanced category (which includes the manufacturing of electronic, computer machinery and other equipment) scored a 44.7, higher than Food & Beverage (43.8), Transport (42.5) and Wholesale, Services and Professionals (42.2). This seems to indicate that companies in this sector are taking concrete step to have a sustainable impact on across their supply chain.
Countries Rich in Manufacturing Have Insufficient Labor Rights
Companies operating in Asia are especially prone to unfair labor practices, particularly Malaysia, which has nearly 200 electronics factories. These plants produce consumer electronics, motherboards, computer peripherals and other electronic goods that account for a third of the country’s exports. A 2014 study from Verité, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor, found that 32 percent of the industry’s nearly 200,000 migrant workers in this region were employed by way of forced labor because of migrants’ struggle to pay back illegally high recruitment fees or because migrants’ passports had been taken away.
Further, the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, published by the U.S. Department of State, found that many migrant workers in the electronics industry are subjected to employment practices that indicate forced labor, such as contract violations, restricted movement, wage fraud and imposition of significant debts by recruitment agents or employers.
To prohibit forced labor conditions, companies can use sustainable procurement programs to build better transparency and communication with contracted manufacturers. They can also work with suppliers to strengthen codes of conduct to limit the use of recruitment agencies, decreasing the vast number of workers who are unfairly charged illegally high fees.
As organizations push to make production processes cheaper in an effort to remain competitive, labor and health risks can become more evident. As difficult as the global supply chain is to manage, eradicating modern slavery in the electronics industry through sustainable procurement practices will remain a priority for organizations across the globe.
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