Workers’ Rights and Technology

Inadequate working conditions are a persistent issue in the IT supply chain. The vast majority of manufacturing takes place in countries with fewer protections for workers.

Working conditions and workers’ rights

Many products are assembled in factories in China, where there is a huge and highly-skilled workforce costing relatively little. Reduced costs allow companies to meet growing global demand for affordable high-tech products, but all too often it is the workers who pay the true cost.

Conditions in Chinese electronics factories have frequently made headlines for low wages, excessive working hours, forced overtime and insufficient breaks, and the even the limited labour laws that do exist are frequently violated.

Student ‘interns’ forced to work overtime

A common practice in Chinese assembly factories is the use of student ‘interns’, many as young as 16, as a source of cheap and flexible labour during busy periods. Schools, universities and colleges are given contracts and teachers are paid to accompany students to the factories; they are sometimes asked to encourage uncooperative students into accepting overtime.

Although the practice itself is not illegal, Chinese labour law does place restrictions on overtime and shift patterns for student workers. Despite this, repeated reports by NGOs and news publications suggest that the law is routinely ignored.

In September 2019, Apple and Foxconn were again forced to admit to violating Chinese labour laws at the Zhengzhou plant while producing the iPhone 11, when 50% of the workforce was discovered to be made up of temporary workers and interns, even though Chinese law caps the proportion of temporary workers at 10%.

Only a month previously, Foxconn’s Hengyang facility supplying Amazon smart speaker devices was also found to be making illegal use of student labour. 

Multiple other reports have been published of similar practices involving Foxconn, and other large Chinese suppliers such as Quanta, at factories supplying products for Apple, Sony, HP, Acer and others. 

The frequency and recurring nature of these reports suggests that companies must do more to make sure that their supply chain policies are adhered to.

Inadequate industry policies on supply chain management  IT product supply chains are necessarily complex; a computer or smartphone can contain thousands of components and the network of suppliers can cover many different companies across multiple countries.

This means that it is particularly difficult for a company to oversee conditions throughout its supply chain, and therefore especially important for companies to have a strict code of conduct in place that demands fair treatment of workers from its suppliers.

Overall, none of the PC brands we rated in this guide met the criteria for our best rating for Supply Chain Management.

Foxconn

Foxconn is the world’s largest provider of electronics manufacturing services. It has manufactured products for many of the world’s largest IT brands including Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, HP, Dell, Huawei, and many more.

The Taiwanese contractor employs 873,000 people worldwide, including an estimated 450,000 at a single site in Shenzhen, China (known as Foxconn City), and has around 45 factories scattered throughout China.

It is currently the fourth largest IT company in the world by revenue (although it has recently been reported to be experiencing a downturn, in part due to an escalating trade war between the US and China).

The company has been the focus of numerous scandals relating to workers’ rights. Besides its frequent misuse of student labour, it has become notorious for reports of worker suicides in its factories.

Subscription Products

Become a subscriber today

Ethics made easy - comprehensive, simple to use, transparent and reliable ethical rankings. A wealth of data at your fingertips.

Only £29.95 for 12 months web access and the print magazine. Cancel via phone or email within 30 days for a full, no-questions-asked refund!

Start your subscription - find out more