Socially Responsible IT Procurement – Greenwich Public Procurement Symposium

Friday saw beautiful sunshine in London for the first time in what seemed like ages. That made the stunning setting of Greenwich University within the historic maritime centre an even more impressive venue for the first symposium on responsible IT procurement in public procurement, an event supported by the London Universities Purchasing Consortium (LUPC); the University of Greenwich Business, Human Rights and the Environment Research Group; and Electronics Watch.

"Socially Responsible Public Procurement of Electronic Products: Challenges of Monitoring the Global Supply Chain Symposium" was the full title. What's this all about, you may ask? Well, from a procurement point of view it means improving the human rights and working conditions of employees in the supply chain for electronics products. How can buyers make sure we are not supporting forced labour, slavery even, when we buy laptops, servers and other IT equipment for our organisations? As we heard on Friday, there are some real issues to address.

The event brought together public procurement representatives from health, local and central government, transport, and universities as well as academics, researchers and campaigners from an range of countries and organisations. Andy Davies, Director of LUPC has been one of those driving this initiative, and he kicked off by setting the scene. The estimate is that €94 Billion annually is spent on electronics products across the European public sector. "If we knew more about how these products are made, we might feel differently about them", he said.

He talked about the working conditions in the huge Chinese electronics factories, some of which like Foxconn employ hundreds of thousands of people. "Your smart phone is largely handmade" - very little is automated, it goes through "357 pairs of human hands" in the process. But Davies identified that there are tricky issues - whilst we might think the on-site accommodation that some factories provide for workers is not great, for example, it is better than the living conditions for rural agricultural workers. But working hours is one of the biggest issues; most workers are doing a 10 hour working day, six days a week; some do more.

He talked about a piece of work by Danwatch, a Danish independent media and research centre that alleged a Wistron factory in China that makes servers for Dell, HP and Lenovo was using student interns who were basically forced to work there or "they would not be allowed to graduate". So UK universities, Davies said, were buying servers made by student  "forced labour". Now, after pressure and publicity, Dell and others are addressing this via their suppliers - so that is an example of both very bad practice and the positive results (hopefully) that can be driven by buyer pressure.

The cynics, or perhaps realists, might say that this is how capitalism works, and how countries pull themselves out of subsistence economy into the developed world. Indeed, there is some truth in this; it is only 100 years since the conditions in British factories, coal mines and steel works were far worse than in modern Chinese factories. But that doesn’t mean we should not at the very least make sure firms adhere to local employment, health & safety and human rights laws. Too often, even that does not happen.

So working with Electronics Watch, who are promoting this cause, has three objectives from Davies' point of view.

  1. We want to write into our contracts conditions that assure help improving working conditions and need advice on that.
  2. We at LUPC can't do this on our own, we need to work together with other parties in the public sector across Europe, so we can afford to run a monitoring regime together, for instance.
  3. We also need strength in our discussions with the manufacturers and brands - with the €94B spend across Europe maybe we can make big changes.

All good stuff – and we'll have more on the event later shortly.

Discuss this:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *