More trouble at’ mill (or Chinese sweatshop)

factoryMore news on the continuing plight of Chinese workers in tech manufacturing plants, and the apparent blind eye the major multinationals are paying to their condition, emerged this week.

Li Qiang, founder of NGO China Labor Watch, claimed to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Tuesday that the audits which most MNCs commission aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

He pointed to widespread bribery of auditing firms by the big name companies – basically, they bung a few thousand dollars and the auditors agree not to expose any problems in the factories which might require lots of money to fix.

Although Li didn’t accuse any outright of corruption, Dell, HP, Samsung and Apple were all said to have “severely flawed” auditing systems. He also exposed auditing firm Intertek as having been caugt in the past for accepting bribes.

Said firm has Samsung and Siemens as clients and a lot more tech companies besides.

Now the CECC is most definitely sympathetic to the aims of Li and his counterparts in other NGOs, and one can’t help thinking the reason they’re so keen to expose malpractice in China isn’t to get the workers a better deal but to force such a public outcry that US firms decide to bring jobs back to their homeland.

In fact, it was certainly mentioned several times at the hearing that US workers couldn’t hope to compete against factories where staff are paid a pittance and over-worked to the point of exhauston.

Whatever the motives, though, this needs stuff exposing – factory audits are commonly used by tech companies whose plants are found wanting, as a handy cure-all to keep the media and customers happy.

If they fail, there is literally no point – but we kind of knew that anyway. The only way to change things long term is consumer pressure on companies to improve working conditions followed up by independent and random inspections from NGOs.

Needless to say none of the tech companies above have come back to me.

The lack of response is not just typical of local PR failure – I’ll bite my tongue on that one for the time being – but endemic of the lack of transparency at these big tech brands. If they’re really confident in the conditions at the factories – dismiss such accusations out of hand, invite random inspections etc

Hopefully, as consumers and politicians get more savvy to what’s going on and start to ask more searching questions, these multi-nationals will find it harder to fob them off with the old audit card.

There’s a long way to go yet.

(More entries on this subject can be found here, here and here.)

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Asia Pacific falls! Western woes hit PC market

PCJust as the global PC market seemed to be getting back on track, Asia Pacific looks to be faltering.

Yes, IDC on Thursday released its predictions for Q2 shipments in the region and the results show a one per cent decline over 2011, with HP and Dell the biggest losers.

The irony in all this is that IDC is blaming economic turbulence in the West as a major cause for consumers and enterprises to tighten spending, thus sending shipments down.

It’s an interesting observation because it really highlights the global, interconnected nature of the economy, and by extension the IT market, today.

We know from the global meltdown of 2008 exactly what happens when the economic dominoes begin to fall in one region – eventually everyone gets sucked in to a lesser or greater extent.

Asian companies with risk exposure in the West or multinationals with offices in Asia may both have found recent economic sluggishness in the markets they operate in outside of Asia Pac has led to greater caution inside the region, which could partly explain the PC stats.

On the consumer side, meanwhile, IDC analyst Avi Sundaram told me the following:

This is more of a sentiment issue. Weakness in Western economies has affected growth in Asian countries as well, with GDP numbers going down across the region in the first half this year. This, in turn, has affected consumer confidence as well. Admittedly, it is not something specific to PCs, but given how PC buying is still a discretionary expenditure out here, consumers are pulling back on all such non-essential spending, including PCs.

So whether it’s shipments to Western countries being hit or the knock-on effect of economic woes in the West leading to lower spending inside Asia Pacific, bad news in the US and Europe may mean bad news for Asia.

It’s all one messed up, interconnected global market.

If nothing else, this should all serve as a reminder to the IT leader in the West that they need to keep an eye on what’s going on all over the planet and not just their home market to effectively manage risk, spot emerging trends, and basically do their job properly.