The Best and Worst of the Electronics Industry
For decades now, the electronics industry have gotten a really bad rap. Much of it is well-deserved, it is one dirty industry. Yet not many people are genuinely aware of the goings on within the industry, and little public discussion is happening around the human rights violations or actions we can take to safeguard against them. So I'm hoping to clear up some of the confusion about what's happening in the electronics industry and who is doing well versus who we should withdraw our financial support from.
Baptist World Aid Australia has conducted a report of 56 companies across four criteria: policies, transparency, monitoring and worker rights. What they found was that no company had traced their raw materials and only one company was able to trace its component manufacturers. One out of 56. No company received an A in this study, with the median grade being a measly C-.
Some companies have made giant leaps forward in recent years, whether through new policy implementation (e.g. Apple) or providing better evidence of traceability and transparency (e.g. Dick Smith). Below I'll highlight some of the most serious issues involved in the production of electronics manufacturing before moving onto a breakdown of the best and worst companies in Australia.
The main problems?
Child labour is common in the mines of many of the countries where raw materials are extracted for electronics to be used in the developing world. As such, a companies' entire supply chain is audited by Baptist World Aid to look for child labour and worker exploitation in raw mineral extraction. One example is the mining of in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Indonesia. I counted seven raw materials mined in the DRC that are used for electronic devices, and 40% of DRC mine workers are children.
A common problem with sourcing materials and labour from developing regions is the lack of a guarantee of a living wage. A living wage is a salary that will comfortably cover the earner's basic needs such as housing, food, clothing, education and healthcare for themselves and their dependents, leaving them some flexibility for emergencies or the ability to deposit savings. When employees' work for an income less than their living expenses they are in poverty and are unable to get out of poverty through employment. This is a violation of rights.
Forced or bonded labour is an issue. Forced labour is a fancy new term for slavery, where the worker feels they have no choice but to comply. Bonded labour is when a worker is forced to repay a debt through work, often after being tricked into the situation through human trafficking where hefty fees are charged for them to be "placed" in a job. Where there is a demand for cheap workers, there is also a risk of trafficking and forced/bonded labour. Alternatively, employers may also violate worker rights' by denying social protection. This includes acts such as demanding overtime or withholding health care, job security, sick leave, parental leave or access to food and housing.
There is also an issue of child labour, where school-age children are working instead of studying. This is known to be damaging to their development and a hindrance of their human rights. This is uniquely an issue on top of unfair living conditions which child labour victims may dually be experiencing. Children are easier to manipulate and rob of wages, due to their lessened ability to advocate for themselves or in a group. The issue of child and/or forced child labour further down the supply chain in manufacturing is near exclusively faced in China and Malaysia. Companies are graded more harshly on the strength of their policies via the potential for child or forced labour in the region of their factories.
So without further ado, here are the rankings!
The Best (B+)
- BSH Group
- Motorola Mobility
The Ordinary (B to C-)
- Dick Smith Electronics
- LG Electronics
- Motorola Solutions
The Worst (D to F)
- Amazon Kindle
- Arcelik A.S
- Capital Brands
- JVC Kenwood
- Leica Camera AG
This list shows that there are six brands we should be lending our financial support to: Acer, Apple, BSH, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola and Samsung. There are additionally 23 brands we should be firmly boycotting, with three companies scoring straight F grades across all four criteria: Hisense, Palsonic and Polaroid.
No company on this list received a passing grade in the area of extraction, as no company meets the requirements for traceability or monitoring of their raw mineral suppliers.
Special mention goes to Garmin and Dick Smith Electronics who despite only receiving a B grade were the only two companies to adequately prove that final assembly workers received above a minimum wage income. However, no company could demonstrate a living wage throughout their supply chain.
It's important to walk away from this article knowing that none of these electronics companies are guaranteed to be free of any child or forced labour, or to be free from using conflict minerals such as the extraction of tin from the civil war zone of the DRC. Baptist World Aid Australia could only measure the systems and policies put in place to mediate the risk of such exploitation, but only the Fairphone was made with Fair Trade principles, and it didn't review well enough to ever really take off. (Although it is still available for order from the Netherlands here.)
If nobody will willingly trace their supply chain or release evidence to the public, it's near impossible for consumers' to make choices aligned with our values. We can make measured decisions on companies we trust the most, but none of us can eradicate the possibility of supporting unethical practices. But there is something we can do, and that's use our voices.
When we intentionally shop with companies based on how they treat their workers, and we're vocal about why we're doing it, we encourage other consumers to make conscious decisions, too. And a social climate that openly disparages industry practices while actively investing money into those taking steps to improve it, is a climate in which companies are forced to react. They follow the cash.
So shop wisely, but don't shop quietly. Let people know why you've made the decisions you do.
My last electronics purchases? All Apple (who score a B+ rating) with two of my three last devices being secondhand from eBay (my iPhone and my recent iPad, as I find a laptop is harder to find this way). Buying gently used or partially refurbished electronics is a fantastic way to keep usable parts out of landfill and to decrease demand on the industry.
Consumers create demand, and demand drives industry reaction. We're already seeing the way things are changing in the fashion industry since the Rana Plaza, with a change in local and laws and some brands doing a complete overhaul in how they audit their suppliers. (Read more here.) There's absolutely no reason that can't happen in electronic products, if we just start the conversation.