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Workers silenced while we talk

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The mobile phone industry is often presented as a clean, unproblematic industry, but makeITfair’s new report ‘Silenced to Deliver’ shows that this is not the case. Workers’ rights in Asian mobile phone factories are severely violated.

“As the prices of mobile phones steadily decline, the factory workers that manufacture our phones in China and the Philippines continue to pay a very high price. Young women in Asian factories are denied their basic rights and have few or no means of improving their situation since independent unions are often prohibited”, says Sara Nordbrand, researcher at SwedWatch.

Every second, 36 mobile phones are manufactured. Half of them are made in China. Asia has become the world’s electronics factory, and most of the mobile phones we buy are produced by female workers aged 16 to 30.

makeITfair has investigated labour conditions at six factories that produce components for Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, LG, Sony Ericsson and Apple’s iPhone in China and the Philippines. The research revealed that working conditions there violate national laws, conventions of the International Labour Organisation as well as the mobile phone companies’ own codes of conduct on issues such as working hours and use of hazardous chemicals.

High rates of production and tough discipline are required at the assembly lines. The workers often work 10 to 12 hours per day, six to seven days per week. Minimum wages have become standard as basic wages for full time work. Even two adults working full-time and receiving the official minimum wage in the Philippine electronics industry cannot cover a single family’s basic needs.

The mobile phone companies mentioned in the report were given the opportunity to comment on makeITfair’s findings. None of them is questioning the low wage levels at the factories. makeITfair’s study shows that the low wages partly explain a wide range of other problems that the brand name companies promise to combat in their codes of conduct. Low wages for full-time work at the factory mean that workers must put up with inhumane overtime hours in order to make ends meet. Some workers fall asleep on the job or make mistakes because they are exhausted; this in turn leads to wage deductions that reduce their salary even further. The quick pace of work forces some workers to forego protective equipment even though they are handling chemicals that may harm their health.

“Health and safety is not only about providing the right equipment, but also about giving the employees the possibility to use it. Workers we have interviewed for this report show symptoms that are typical for mishandling of chemicals. Education and a reasonable work pace are urgently needed if their health is to be protected”, says Jenny Chan at Hong Kong-based SACOM, which coordinated the research in China.

In both China and the Philippines, electronics workers are silenced through anti-union tactics used by both the employers and the state. In China, the number of strikes and the reports about violations of labour rights to the authorities have increased significantly the last few years, a trend that the government has tried to counter by introducing more thorough labour laws. However, labour inspections are few, and free and independent unions are prohibited.

“Mobile phone companies can contribute to change through their codes of conducts, random controls and auditing. But more far-reaching and permanent changes will not come about until the employees are allowed to organise and openly express their opinions”, says Annika Torstensson, project leader at Fair Trade Center.

Suppliers interviewed by makeITfair complain about the inconsistency of the demands from the mobile phone companies. On the one hand, suppliers are asked to lower production costs. On the other hand, they are required to improve working conditions and environmental aspects of the production, investments that obviously raise costs. The larger suppliers can often handle these competing demands, if they want to, but smaller factories further down the supply chain are unable to reconcile them.

“Mobile phone companies need to introduce true incentives for CSR investments in Asia and stop blocking change through obstructive purchasing practices. They also need to take responsibility for the conditions at sub-tier suppliers that are currently left uncontrolled”, says Esther de Haan, researcher at SOMO.

Report(opens in new window)

Besides the report ‘Silenced to Deliver’ SOMO also publishes the paper ‘Mobile Connections’ with a follow up on the ‘High Cost of Calling: Critical Issues in the Mobile Phone Industry’ report.
Download the SOMO paper ‘Mobile Connections’

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