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When workers lead on enforcing labour standards: a case study of Electronics Watch

Electronics Watch is pioneering a way to safeguard workers’ rights in the electronics industry by working with workers, buyers and brands. 

ILO in Asia and the Pacific/Flickr. CC (by-nc-nd)

Poor working conditions in the electronics industry are not uncommon. We’ve seen them in the spate of Foxconn suicides in 2010, in stories of debt bondage in Thailand, and in the on-going campaigning by Samsung workers to form trade unions and receive compensation after 76 workers deaths died due hazardous chemical exposure.

A proposed solution to prevent further injustices is to use a worker-driven approach to monitoring and enforcement of labour standards.

How could this work in practice? The activities of Electronics Watch, an independent, worker-driven monitoring organisation that aims to protect labour rights and the safety of workers in electronic supply chains, suggest one way forward.

The way of Electronics Watch

Electronics Watch was founded in 2015 to support the millions of electronics workers struggling around the world to maintain their labour rights. The electronics industry is massive, accounting today for 25% of all global manufacturing trade. Since 2016 Electronics Watch has been actively monitoring factories and supporting workers to find sustainable solutions to systemic worker rights abuses.

Electronics Watch works with public sector institutions such as universities and local councils to include legally enforceable codes of conduct for electronic suppliers in their contracts. They then conduct independent investigations of factories, and use the results to raise issues with brands and suppliers, as well as to demand improvements in line with the contractual codes of conduct and national or international labour laws.

Workers are at the heart of this process. Workers’ are able to raise concerns about their workplace, either anonymously or via civil society worker organisations in their area. If the issues raised are substantiated and contravene the contracts suppliers signed, then Electronics Watch will conduct an investigation.

Investigations are undertaken by civil society organisations already established in the manufacturing locations. The interviews they conduct with workers are carried out in secure, off-site locations away from potentially threatening managers. Workers then remain involved as the investigators draw up their recommendations for change that will be put to purchasers and suppliers.

In addition to on-site investigations, working conditions in these factories benefit from workplace transparency for workers and by workers, not only for buyers. For example, Electronics Watch would like workers to have access to the social audit reports of other factories, so they can compare labour conditions and better understand their rights with regard to unionisation and collective bargaining.

Improving working conditions in factories includes ensuring workplace transparency for workers and by workers, not only for buyers.

Putting workers first, not consumers and brands

Worker-driven monitoring differs from consumer-led transparency. The work of the social auditing companies engaged for consumer-led efforts is primarily aimed at avoiding reputational damage for the companies they are monitoring. Worker-driven monitoring is done in a way that ensures workers are involved, and not simply as subjects of an extensive PR exercise.

There are many differences between the way Electronics Watch works through worker-driven monitoring compared to social auditing companies, which have limited ability to change endemic business models which exploit workers and thus usually fail to correct labour and environmental problems in company supply chains. These weaknesses, in large part, stem from the simple fact that social audit companies are usually hired by the brands themselves, generating obvious conflicts of interest. Electronics Watch, in contrast, is independent from the industry and suppliers with no vested interest in keeping the status quo. Civil society organisations involved with workers sit on its governing board and are integral to every step of the process, from discovery through to recommendation and resolution. This makes worker-led transparency a process that empowers workers to be part of change in their work places, rather than simply subjects.

A core strength of the worker-driven model practiced by Electronics Watch is that workers are able to raise concerns as they arise, rather than waiting for an organisation to ‘discover’ any issues during their one day visit every few years or so (as with social auditing companies). This on-going engagement helps ensures that subtle and systemic issues – such as the use of intimidation to hinder union formation or long-term exposure to chemicals – are picked up and acted upon to drive sustainable change.

The importance of association

One of the key areas that Electronics Watch monitors and support workers on is freedom of association. Intimidation, threats, firings and withholding salaries are common tactics used by electronics companies to prevent workers from forming trade unions. It is clearly recognised that without the ability of workers to organise and collectively bargain for their own improved working conditions, sustained change is hard to come by.

Worker-driven models are winning for workers. For example, with the support of Electronics Watch and other international organisations, workers were successfully reinstated in the Philippines after an attempt at union busting by Samsung, notorious for its no union policy in South Korea and elsewhere.

Over the past two years Electronics Watch has seen a number of other successes for workers’ rights. Student intern labour is now no longer forced or coerced in some brand factories in China, migrant workers in Thailand were removed from debt bondage, and workers in Czechia were given more secure contracts and now work only their contracted hours.

Many of these successes have, in part, been due to the worker-driven structure of Electronics Watch. The case in the Philippines was bought to light by workers contacting Electronics Watch via a monitoring partner, and it is only through a follow up investigation in conjunction with its monitoring partners that Electronics Watch can now say with confidence that the use of student intern labour has ended in these particular factories.

Challenges

The worker-driven model of Electronics Watch is not always welcomed by companies or state authorities. In China, particularly since 2015, there has been a crackdown on both international civil society organisations and China-based organisations with linkages to international civil society organisations. This has made it more difficult for both to effectively monitor working conditions in factories. This is particular to China, although Electronics Watch has found that brands and suppliers are often reluctant to allow investigations and engage in constructive negotiations in other countries. However, some have been quite cooperative. They have disclosed the locations of many of their factories and suppliers, and the number doing so is only increasing with time.

Peter Pawlicki, the director of outreach and education at Electronics Watch, tells us more about the challenges they face and how they manage them.

“Factories know that their rate of worker turnover is very high and Electronics Watch resources are limited, meaning that if brands remain slow at making changes, the incoming workers are likely to be unaware of long term issues and less likely to raise concerns, reducing the factories need to act. By working closely with civil rights organisations that are well connected in their local area, this ensures there can be continuous work, and issues are not dropped as workers move on.


In order to be listened to by brands, Electronics Watch is careful to gain trust from brands and suppliers. This is done by providing a confidential and discursive space where brands can be held accountable by Electronics Watch. Reports are initially confidential to brands and affiliates as Electronics Watch works on corrective action remedies for workers. However, Electronics Watch is in due time releasing its reports to the public.


Campaign tactics of naming and shaming brands have been useful in the past to create broad public awareness of labour rights violations in the supply chain of the electronics industry.  However, Electronics Watch aims towards a trust-based relationship that will allow a long-term social dialogue and does not use these tactics.


Finally, we recognise that the work of Electronics Watch in fighting modern slavery and other workers’ rights abuses is currently limited to the manufacturing of electronics. We are starting a project to look in to what we can do to protect workers’ rights and the environment in the mining of raw materials for electronics as this is another serious issue.”

Electronics Watch functions as an intermediary between public buyers with influence over brands and civil society organisations on the ground. This is not an easy position to be in, but through webinars, conferences, and reports, Electronics Watch is constantly working to improve understanding between these groups.

The role of buyers

Buyers can be crucial allies in the fight to ensure effective, worker-led monitoring and the widespread enforcement of labour standards. Through changes to their purchasing contracts, and through modified frameworks and code of conducts, buyers are able to use legally enforceable requirement mechanisms to push for change. Luckily, this is starting to happen. In the UK there are now 134 public institutions that are affiliated to Electronics Watch, either directly or through its purchasing consortium. 

This year alone, Electronics Watch, with support of its affiliates, has worked on labour rights cases in factories employing more that 100,000 workers. Slowly, this model is supporting improved conditions for workers across the system. Electronics Watch’s end goal is to see industry-wide – rather than only factory-wide – systemic change for workers’ rights.

Worker-driven change works. With Electronics Watch as the connecting framework between public buyers, workers’ rights organisations, and workers, systemic change in the electronics industry is beginning.


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