Just finished a beast of a story detailing more depressing news from China of human rights and labour violations in factories making tech kit for some of the West’s biggest brands.
Yup, it’s not Foxconn this time but Hong Kong-headquartered OEM VTech, which mainly seems to make cordless and fixed line telephones for the likes of Motorola, AT&T, Telstra, Sony and others.
The report into poor working conditions at its Guangdong factories list, if anything, worse abuses to those discovered at Foxconn. These include mandatory and excessive overtime; exposure to harmful chemicals; sub-standard living conditions; violence and bullying towards staff; and below subsistence wages.
It’s worth noting that VTech strenuously denies all the allegations.
I’m not disputing any of the findings of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, nor its deliberately confrontational tone and emotive, first-person testimonials from workers at the plant – after all it needs to shame the Western companies involved into taking action.
What is more interesting is what happens now that the genie is out of the bottle.
Motorola and Telstra reacted with shock, exclaiming that compliance with the law and their own codes of conduct are essential and that, if true, these abuses are unacceptable.
Fair play to Telstra for immediately suspending sales of any VTech products while it investigates, but it seems to me that large Western technology firms are more than happy to turn a blind eye to this kind of thing as long as the labour is cheap, the production costs are kept down and no-one is making a fuss.
Saying you mandate compliance with a code of conduct but never enforcing that compliance, for example, is less than useless. As is saying compliance with local laws is compulsory when you know that, as in China, local laws are not worth the paper they’re written on – they’re either not enforced or shot through with so many caveats that the employer can effectively do what they like.
There are those who say that improving conditions in these OEM factories will push up prices at the till.
Well, that is debatable given that the OEMs are making a healthy profit here and could probably stretch to curtains and mattresses in the dorms; better food in the canteens; and certainly stools for workers to sit on during their shifts, without pushing up the cost of production too much.
I think Foxconn was just the beginning. Any tech manufacturer that breathed a sigh of relief, thinking the buck stopped with Apple, better prepare themselves for a rather uncomfortable time going forward.
Bad publicity is the only thing that seems to spur these big name brands into action and as long as there is an appetite among the public to know what misery lies behind their latest shiny gadget then the stories will keep on coming.
Geoff Crothall, a spokesman for not-for-profit the China Labour Bulletin, told me that conditions like those highlighted in the report are endemic throughout factories in the Pearl River Delta.
The best that can come of the constant media scrutiny is that these brands and their OEMs are forced to institute regular inspections and improve living and working standards across the board, because the local government certainly isn’t going to.