Electronics Watch Conference – Progress, But We Need More Public Buyers Involved!

Last Thursday the Electronics Watch (EW) annual conference – titled Ending Precarious Labour - Public Buyers' Role in Protecting the Rights of Electronics Workers, was held at Queen Mary, University of London. It is an interesting campus, out in the east end of London, and featuring an ancient Jewish cemetery in the middle of it. The event was held in the Octagon, a spectacular Victorian library building - spectacular but not with great acoustics, it should be said!

There were close to 100 people there, with a mix of academics, human rights activists, charity workers and a few procurement people. Electronics Watch is campaigning for public procurement to support human rights in the electronics supply chain, and has been well supported by public organisations such as the London Universities Purchasing consortium and Transport for London.

The morning panels looked at the situation in a number of different countries, including Indonesia, India and China. The big manufacturers (Apple, Dell, HP etc) are operating in a range of Asian countries now, and that causes some interesting and problematic situations at times – migrant labour happens between those countries as well as from developing to developed countries, and problems with recruiters and middle men exploiting vulnerable people are common.

Heather White, who has produced and directed a film “Complicit” that looks at the use of dangerous chemicals in electronics factories – often without providing workers with protective clothing – was interesting. She explained there has been a crackdown in China in the last few years’ on the development of trade unions. It seems ironic that the “communist” state is actually cracking down on workers who want to organise and increase their power, but I guess China is communist in name only – it is an authoritarian capitalist state basically.

But there were some success stories too. Kristian Hemström from Stockholm Council told us how Dell has initially been unwilling to be transparent about their situation, but when the council stopped buying products for four months, the firm relented. That’s interesting because Stockholm in itself is not huge – but perhaps the threat of any boycott spreading was enough to change minds.

However, as a general principle, the more the public sector at national or even international level can work together on these issues, the better. It will be more effective and efficient if everyone is not re-inventing the same processes and the suppliers will appreciate not having to keep giving the same information to dozens of different buyers.

Other speakers suggested that procurement should ask why some products are so “cheap”? Is it because workers are being exploited? That’s a good argument for the profession to use “should be” cost models more than it currently does, we suggest.

We would also suggest that Electronics Watch needs to be careful not to go too far in terms of what it is trying to achieve. One speaker complained about the fact that firms were using contractors or outsourcing work rather than relying on employees. Well, that is a global trend I’m afraid, in pretty much every country and industry. As long as those firms reflect national laws and respect human rights themselves, then I don’t see that we should automatically be against outsourcing.

Complaining that this means the “staff” no longer get a Christmas bonus is not exactly the same as people being forced to work 16-hour days or having their passports confiscated. So EW needs to focus on the core issues that everyone can get behind, not become perceived as a left-wing, generically anti-capitalist trade union type body.

It would have been good though to see more buyers at the event. It seems that the academic and third sector world – including organisations representing worker rights – are taking the lead. That’s fine, but it is ultimately the procurement people (and their senior stakeholders) who can make the real difference, as in the case of Stockholm.

There was a representative present from the UK’s Crown Commercial Service, which was good to see, but it would be better to see CCS, the Ministry of Defence and other big public sector buyers of electronic equipment really getting behind EW and contributing financially and strategically to its work. There is evidence that buyers can make a difference, but it requires scale to really work well.

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