Electronic industries and human rights: What to do?

Nobody, unless they are sadic or irresponsible, likes to think that the products we consume in our everyday life can be related to breaches or violations of human rights. That is why we tear our apparels, everytime that a clothing factory falls down in Bangladesh. Or we think about it twice before consuming palm oil when we’ve see on the news that its cultivation is deforesting the tropical forests. We know that in a globalized economy, a big part of what we buy has been produced in another part of the world and has arrived to our hands through commercial agreements and long transnational supply chains. However, except the price, the technical characteristics or the looks, most of the time we do not know the entire history of these products. Who has produced it? in what conditions? which social and environmental impacts have had their processes of production and distribution?

In this sense, few products are as opaque, and at the same time as vulnerable to risks in their supply chains, as the electronic devices. If you are reading this article on the screen of your phone, a tablet or a laptop it is practically certain that the fabrication of such device has implicated enterprises and other actors from various countries, at least from three different continents. It is also possible that some of the people that work on them, or the communities in which they operate, have suffered labor abuses, harms derived from contamination or other types of breaches of human rights. Let’s see, in rough outlines, which ones are the most delicate points of such supply chains.

The risks from mining to the refinery or smelting:

The supply chains of technological companies are divided in two main parts. The first segment is the “upstream”, which goes from the mine to the refinery or the smelter. The electronic components employ metals and diverse substances of mineral origin extracted and are processed in different geographical places. Moreover, the route from one place to the other is full of risks. Many places of extraction are found in countries that present high rates of institutional corruption, lack of environmental legislation or, directly tolerate the
marketing of minerals from conflict zones inside their territory, without following the adequate controls.

It is the case of Coltan, the Tungsten, Tin, and gold; known as the “blood minerals” for their link to the financing of armed groups and the organized crime. The type of mining done artisanally, in a small scale, is produced in costly rural communities, like the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the interior of Colombia or the North of Myanmar, where armed actors still operate, and sadly, the forced labor or child exploitation are common.

However, the list of minerals employed by electronic industries es much wider and includes other minerals such as cobalt, copper, lithium and platinum. These, even if they are extracted through industrial mining in a big scale and under the supervision of the State, are not exempt of risks. Relations between mining companies and the political elites, many time give place to irregularities in the different cycles of mining: from the arbitrary concession of exploitations, which violate the rights of indigenous peoples of free consultation, prior and informed., to the lack of controls in the cesion of their activity, which can result in environmental damages; going from forceful displacements, intimidations to the peoples who defend the environment or quitting of efforts of protection from possible threats.

Without some systems of management which allow the identification, evaluation, prevention and mitigation of all these risks in the “upstream” of the supply chain, the minerals coming from illegal exploitations or irresponsible companies, can be smelted with other coming from more trusting sources, making it impossible to determine their origin once they are processed.

Human Rights in plants where the devices are put together

When the metals come out of the refineries and smelters, the second part of the chain begins, the “downstream”. This phase covers the relationship between the companies that receive the metal already processed for the fabrication of components, the manufacturing companies where the devices are put together and the commercial distribution. This enterprises are mainly linked to Information Technologies and communication, even if the digital revolution is increasing the electronic demand from other industries such as the biomedical one, the arms industry, aeronautica.

The relation between the technological enterprises and the manufacturing ones is oriented by the cost-benefit and limits to control the technical aspects of production. The pressure to make the costs cheaper has led to the location of the factories in places where the paychecks are lower and the labor laws are softer. It all ends up affecting the working conditions. A recent study elaborated by the Economic Rights Institute and the Electronic Watch shows how suicide has become a way of protesting in many electronic factories in China. The investigation, based in the analysis of 167 suicide cases, thorough interviews with 252 employees from 4 factories and a survey to 5.592 employees of 44 suppliers, assures that 48% of these suicides seek to pressure the companies to better the conditions of workers or denounce the aggressive supervisors or security personnel of the factories. The suicides are only the tip of the iceberg. The economic pressure generates a climate of continuous tension that is invisible from the outside, where the extra hours and the endless working days are compulsory, and the medical coverages in case of accidents are denied; where there are migrant workers that accept conditions of work in a semi slavery system, and end up piled up in insalubrious facilities, as a result of the fear to lose the residency permits that the employers provide. ¿What should be done to face these situations?

Ways to promote responsible technology

The incentives to promote the respect of work right and other human rights in the supply chains of electronics can come, in sum, from two fronts: the binding legislations and the pressure from consumers. None of the two is perfect. The good news is that they are compatible.
When it comes to the labor laws, various conventions and norms of the International Labor Organization come to regulate several aspects in order to guarantee worthy working conditions. Also the national legislations concerning such matter. The problem is that without the political will, and the necessary mechanisms, even the best of norms can end up being useful. Luckily, in the last years interesting innovations have come up, like the Make ICT Fair project, which groups institutions of the public sector from various European countries, technological enterprises and civil society organizations (such as Setem Catalunya or Electronic Watch) to implement systems of labor protection and mechanisms or responsibility oriented towards the workers of electronic factories. The cooperation between the parts is translated into the inclusion of social clauses in the contracts held by public administrations, where the companies that want to supply TICs to city councils and universities, compromise themselves to respect certain working standards. Subsequently, as long as the contract lasts, they are organizations of civil society and and local unions who are in charge of the control of the compliance.

Regarding the minerals in conflict, the OECD has also set guidelines of responsible supply to avoid risks such as the child exploitation, or the forceful work in mines. Inspired in such documents, the EU, in May 2017, approved a Regulation that will oblige the direct importers of ​tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold to comply with these standards of due diligence. However, the TIC companies that import finished electronic devices will not be obliged to comply with such guidelines, even if the OECD and EU support them to do it.

For that approach between the obligatory nature and voluntary nature to work, it is important to mobilize the society in order to generate a demand for responsible technology. In this line initiatives are already being set out. In the framework of the Conflict Free Technology Campaign, the ALBOAN NGO, in collaboration with the Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes de Valencia, has recently launched a petition of signatures to promote the inclusion of due diligence guidelines relative to responsible supply of minerals in conflict by technology companies in the contracts with the public administrations.

In sum, it is time for ICT companies to recognize the complexity of their supply chains and for them to normalize the conversation about the risks associated to human rights violations, explaining to the society the measures they are adopting to prevent and mitigate them. On the other side, the society can articulate itself and support the civil society organizations that are promoting these types of collaborations with the local entities through the responsible public contracting. There is a long way to go, but there are no excuses not to keep going.

Leave a Reply