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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.

In this article we look at typical working conditions, particularly in China, and the use of potentially forced labour.

Computers and smartphones are complex devices, and the network of suppliers can cover many different companies across multiple countries. Many consumer IT brands, particularly the American companies, also consign the assembly of the final product itself to other companies. The largest and most high-profile of these is Foxconn, most famous for assembling Apple’s iPhone, but it also makes products for many other clients including Sony and Dell.

Headquartered in Taiwan, Foxconn is the largest private employer in mainland China where it operates 12 production plants, including an enormous site in Shenzhen, known as Foxconn City, where as many as 400,000 people are employed (more than in some nation states). Another important manufacturer is Quanta Computers Inc – also Taiwanbased but operating mainly in China – which is the world’s largest manufacturer of laptop computers.

Conditions in the factories

Chinese electronics factories have frequently made headlines for gruelling working conditions and, back in 2010, Foxconn City made headlines for a spate of worker suicides, anti-suicide nets below its roofs.

In more recent times, conditions for workers have been aggravated by China’s severe and prolonged Covid-19 restrictions and, in May 2022, it was reported that hundreds of workers at Quanta’s Shanghai factory clashed with guards and stormed through barriers following weeks spent working under lockdown conditions in which they were restricted from seeing family members for weeks at a time. In July 2022, a Covid outbreak in the Shenzhen area is said to have led to the Chinese government imposing similar restrictions on workers there, including at Foxconn City.

And, although China still dominates electronics manufacturing, there are signs that both Taiwanese and American companies are beginning to shift production out of the country, owing partly to rising geopolitical tensions, but also rising wages in China. Foxconn, for example, is said to be aggressively expanding its operations in India, while Apple, Google and Microsoft are reported to be moving more of their production to Vietnam.

Workers at an electronic factory in China
Workers at electronic factory in China, image credit Zolo.

Uyghur forced labour

Starting from about 2014, the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, in internment camps and prisons in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. At the camps, Uyghurs are forced to go through ideological and behavioural “reeducation”, and sometimes even worse things, such as forced sterilisation.

In a 2022 report, a UN expert on contemporary forms of slavery said it was “reasonable to conclude” that forced labour was taking place in China’s far-western region.

However, the Chinese government claims that they are only giving vocational training to the Uyghurs. Once ‘graduated’ from the camps, people are indeed sent to do labour. In some cases this is forced labour.

Research shows that there is widespread use of Uyghur forced labour within the ICT industry. In the factories, Uyghurs are often paid – if at all – a fraction of that of their Han Chinese counterparts. Various human rights groups have been calling for an end to this type of modern slavery.

Action to curb Uyghur exploitation

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has identified 82 foreign and Chinese companies potentially benefiting from the use of Uyghur workers. These include Acer, Apple, ASUS, Dell, Google, HP, HTC, Huawei, Lenovo, LG, Microsoft, Nokia, Oppo, Samsung, Sony, Xiaomi, and ZTE. All these companies lost half a mark in our Human Rights category.

In spite of lobbying efforts from corporate giants like Apple, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act went into effect in the United States in June 2022. The act prohibits the importation of any goods produced in the Uyghur Region.

But while the regulation will hopefully make a difference to supply chains ending in the US, it won’t affect supply chains ending in the rest of the world.

The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region has been calling on the following companies to commit to a single global standard: Apple, Dell, Google, HP, Microsoft, Samsung and Sony.

However, at the time of writing, none of the companies’ Modern Slavery Statements as much as mentioned Uyghurs. Sony said that it would consider ceasing business with partners found to be using forced labour while Apple stated that it “found no evidence of forced labor anywhere we operate”.

Our article Should we boycott 'Made in China'? has more detail about forced labour and Uyghurs and the complexities of boycotting China or products made in China.

New law needed

While the UK government has travel bans and asset freezes against certain Chinese officials, there is no UK legislation against companies using Uyghur forced labour.

In the UK you can sign the petition by Anti-Slavery International asking your MP to back the creation of such a law.

Additional reporting by Katalin Csatadi.