Monday, July 27, 2009

Global Electronics Industry: The 'New Nike'

Like the garment and toy industries, the global electronics industry is outsourcing almost all its production, but has added its own special wrinkle to sweatshop manufacturing – by turning most of its work force in Mexico into “temporary help.” Thereby the electronics industry has become the “new Nike,” according to Garrett Brown, coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network.

In Mexico about 240,000 men and women – or 55 or 60% of all the industry’s workers -- are employed not by the industry itself but by 60 different temporary employment agencies. This “perma-temp” status is the most precarious form of employment, with low pay and virtually no benefits, Brown writes in the July issue of the Border/Line Health & Safety bulletin.

Globally, 75% of computer products are now made by “contract manufacturers” (CMs), rather than by their “original equipment manufacturers” (OEMs). Although CMs are totally unknown to consumers, several, such as Hon Hai/Foxcom, produce billions in sales with hundreds of thousands of workers in China and other Asian countries, Brown points out.

He applies the “New Nike” label to makers of cell phones, game consoles, printers, and computers because the industry that sells them is plagued with the same sweatshop conditions that prevail in the athletic and garment companies, including:

-- excessive hours, sometimes week after week of work without a day off.
-- low pay, with the legal minimum becoming the actual pay ceiling, not the floor.
-- long delays in getting paid.
-- hefty recruitment fees that put migrant workers deeply in debt.
-- exposure to dangerous chemicals without adequate safety gear.

That’s not all:

“There is the ever-growing tsunami of electronic waste that has flooded countries like China, Ghana, and India, where it is ‘processed’ in rudimentary workshops, often by children, in ways that poison the workers and pollute the environment.”

Corporate codes of conduct? “They are always trumped on the factory floor by the ‘iron triangle’ of ever-lower prices [demanded by] suppliers, high quality benchmarks, and shortening delivery times.”

UPDATE. On July l6, Sun Danyong, 25, an employee in a Foxcom factory making Apple iPhones in Shenzhen, China, committed suicide by leaping from the 12th story of the building where he lived. A few days earlier, in a text message to his girlfriend, he said he had been beaten and humiliated by a factory security team who suspected him of stealing a prototype of a new iPhone.

In a short statement expressing regret over Sun’s death, Apple said: “We require all our suppliers treat all workers with dignity and respect.”

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