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OPINION: Tech companies must protect supply chain workers now more than ever

by Felicitas Weber | Business & Human Rights Resource Centre
Thursday, 18 June 2020 14:14 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Major tech firms are failing to prevent forced labour, and coronavirus could worsen worker exploitation

Felicitas Weber is KnowTheChain's Project Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined how much we all rely on our smartphones and computers. From video calls with colleagues, friends, and family to keeping informed about the latest health information, these devices are an essential tool in times of uncertainty.

Yet these tools are produced in an industry where huge profits for household brands like Apple and Amazon co-exist with the exploitation of vulnerable workers.

The world’s 49 largest Information and Communications Technology (ICT) companies have combined profits of nearly US$1 trillion. This is in stark contrast to the wages of workers in their supply chains. In Malaysia, for example - a manufacturing hub for ICT supply chains - as of 2020, the legal minimum monthly wage is US$280, or US$1.36 per hour.

This and many other factors creates a power imbalance that leaves ICT workers vulnerable to labour rights abuses. No worker should have to pay for a job. Yet in Malaysia some workers have had to pay as much as US$1,000 in recruitment fees, the equivalent of four to five months’ wages. Suppliers to one electronics company reportedly reimbursed up to US$30 million to workers for fees paid for recruitment.

There have been allegations of forced labour in multiple tiers of ICT companies’ supply chains in sourcing countries such as Malaysia, China, and Thailand, and in sub-sectors including in supply chains for semiconductors, technology hardware, and consumer electronics. One recent study found more than a quarter of the 49 largest companies were sourcing from factories using ethnic minority workers in factories in China in conditions of forced labour.

A new benchmark by KnowTheChain offers fresh information about what ICT companies are doing to address the risks of forced labour in their supply chains. It finds that three quarters of these 49 largest ICT companies scored below 50/100 on their efforts to tackle forced labour. This is very disappointing given the high-profile nature of these abuses, and the resources available to these companies to take action.

There have been some positive signs. It is now common for companies to prohibit workers being charged recruitment fees. However, only a minority of companies can show that workers have been paid back. And few companies can explain what they are doing to actively prevent workers being charged these fees in the first place.

More worrying is the fact that none of the 49 largest ICT companies can show how the right of supply chain workers to organise themselves and bargain collectively. This is very serious, given we know freedom of association is a key safeguard against forced labour and exploitation.

All of these pre-existing conditions are being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. For those who remain at work, poor living conditions and cramped accommodations, transportation, and workplaces increase the risk of infection. Language barriers may make it difficult for migrant workers to follow health-related advice to protect themselves.

In Malaysia, migrant workers have not been included in the government’s response to put protective measures in place for workers. The pandemic has also increased demand for ICT manufacturing, including for companies known to have used forced labour. And staff shortages caused by the virus could mean workers having to do excessive hours to fill the gap. All of this puts more pressure on suppliers, and therefore onto workers already in vulnerable conditions.

As we look at how to “build back better” out of the pandemic, the ICT industry must urgently address these labour rights issues to make sure the devices we use every day are produced by workers in conditions of safety and dignity.