Workers’ rights abuses in the electronics industry are slowly coming to light. Campaigns backed by students and workers themselves are taking place worldwide, and buyers are developing a growing interest in where their electronics come from and in demanding a better deal for workers, with workers. In a globalised world, we can be more than just bystanders, and make a difference by supporting workers in the fight for just pay and safe working conditions in electronics factories.
Last year, Complicit was released, a documentary exposing the lives of workers making the electronics we all use (especially smartphones) and how brands are complicit in the denial of decent and legal working conditions for staff.
Death, cancer and other long term health issues from exposure of Benzene, N-Hexane and other hazardous chemicals is not uncommon among electronics factory workers. Complicit follows the story of Apple workers who, through their supplier Foxconn, are exposed to Benzene in the process of cleaning iPhone screens.
Benzene is known to be carcinogenic and is banned in the production of goods in Europe and the USA. Yet many European and US smartphones are made in countries such as China, where these harmful chemicals are regularly used during production.
Workers are all too aware of the health risks of their working conditions, with many offered state money to stay silent and short term stays in hospital to alleviate, but not cure, the worst conditions. To demand lasting change, workers have started a campaign, despite the hostile environment in China, to ban Benzene. This campaign has had international support from organisations such as Good Electronics, People & Planet and many academics.
The issue of chemical exposure is not limited to any one country or brand. Samsung workers in South Korea have been fighting a long running legal battle against the company after 79 workers in its computer chip and display factories died from leukaemia, lupus and other illnesses. What’s more, the Korean government let Samsung withhold information regarding the names of the chemicals these workers were exposed to, thus making it very difficult to file for compensation for occupational diseases.
Samsung also has a ‘no union’ policy, not uncommon in the electronics industry, which prevents workers from forming trade unions to organise and bargain for improved and legal working conditions themselves. Policies and practices which restrict workers’ ability to organise in free, independent and democratic unions are commonplace across the industry, including in countries like China and the Philippines.
Last year, students as part of the People & Planet network took part in a day of action against Samsung, in solidarity with the workers fighting for compensation after falling ill at work and for trade union recognition in their workplace. Students are also campaigning all year round for their universities to join Electronics Watch and make sure the technology students use at university is ethical.
Electronics Watch has been working with public sector buyers since 2015 to investigate illegal working practices in electronics factories around the world and lobby for change collectively. Electronics Watch is not only reactive, but a proactive, long-term sustainable response to the issues in the industry.
Electronics Watch works with public sector institutions such as universities and local councils to include legally enforceable contract demands when negotiating with electronics suppliers. They then conduct independent investigations of factories with worker-driven organisations and use the results of these reports to raise any issues with brands and suppliers, and demand improvements in line with their written contracts.
Since monitoring, Electronics Watch has seen a number of other successes for workers’ rights, driving long-term change in the industry. Student intern labour has been eradicated in some brand factories in China, migrant workers in Thailand have been removed from debt bondage, receiving their passports back and their salary, and workers in Czechia now have more secured contracts and work only their contracted hours.
With over 130 public institutions in the UK already members of Electronics Watch and student campaigns in over 10 universities in the UK calling for their institutions to go sweatshop free, industry-wide changes to the electronics industry with and for workers are starting to take shape - and you can be part of this movement.
What can you do?
Watch and put on a film screening of the documentary, Complicit.
Sign the petition calling for protection for Samsung workers’ in Vietnam, Korea and around the world.
Start a Sweatshop Free campaign in your community, calling for your local public institution to join Electronics Watch.
Donate to People & Planet to fund student action against Sweatshops.