Miserable Working Conditions Human Rights Group Condemns Computer Manufacturers

Thousands of PCs and laptops are sold every Christmas, but most consumers don't know that many computer parts are produced under inhumane working conditions in the Far East. A new study has exposed shocking neglect at suppliers for some of the biggest computer manufacturers.

By Hannes Koch

When it comes to inhumane working conditions in Asia, critics tend to focus on the textile industry. But the technology sector is also noticeably earning a reputation for paying little money for long and hard labor at its work sites in the Far East.

The Hong Kong-based human rights organization Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (Sacom) interviewed workers between June and September at two computer parts suppliers in the southern Chinese province of Guandong. According to Sacom and the Berlin development organization Weed, the results are alarming. "Working hours total up to 370 hours per month," Sacom researcher Jenny Chan said on Monday in Berlin. Even accounting for 30 work days a month, that would still be over 12 hours a day, according to the report, "The Dark Side of Cyberspace," which Sacom and Weed published on Monday.

The factories studied are far from back-alley rat shops -- they are suppliers for multinational corporations. One of the two factories investigated, Excelsior Electronics in Dongguan, produces circuit boards, graphics cards, and other parts for computers sold by, among others, Europe's Fujitsu Siemens.

Chan argues that the long working hours violate Chinese law. In addition to the normal 40-hour workweek, Chinese law stipulates that a maximum of 36 hours of overtime can be worked each month. She claims that, in many cases, workers at Excelsior have to work up to 174 hours of overtime. During rush periods, especially before the European Christmas shopping season, days off are cut out entirely. Employees at Excelsior must then work seven days a week, the study claims.

In addition, human rights activists complain that employees often don't receive the legal minimum wage. Citing examples, Chan calculates that at the end of the month only a portion of the full salary is paid out -- which ought to run to €77 ($105.52) plus overtime pay.

Thomas Zott, who is in charge of corporate social responsibility at Fujitsu Siemens in Augsburg, Germany confirmed that Excelsior Electronics is a supplier for the firm. He said he "welcomes" research by human rights activists in China. PC Partner, Excelsior's Hong Kong-based parent company, was asked for a written comment in the preceding weeks. But the company still hasn't provided one.

Zott claims that "Fujitsu Siemens demands from its suppliers that human rights and workers rights are not violated." Production in China "cannot come at the expense of employees," according to Zott. Excelsior must naturally abide by the Chinese laws regulating working hours and wages.

Dell and Sony also under Fire

However, Weed representative Florian Butollo acuses Fujitsu Siemens of, on the one hand, cleverly marketing its production as comparatively enivironmentally friendly, while, on the other, it "recklessly disregards working conditions." This is how the manufacturer promotes its energy-saving "Green PC."

Fujitsu Siemens manager Zott counters by saying that the company only recently took the first step to address suppliers about their responsibility at a conference in Augsburg. He said the company will send inspectors to thoroughly examine conditions at Excelsior next year.

Fujitsu Siemens isn't the only company that has come únder criticism in the study. In addition to Excelsior, Sacom also investigated Compeq Technology in Huizhou. According to Sacom, Compeq produces parts for Dell, Sony and Intel. Sacom made the results of the study available to all the Chinese companies in question before its public release. Dell and Sony acknowledged their collaboration with the Chinese firms, but didn't want to comment on any individual accusations. Intel denied involvement.

In total, representatives from Sacom conducted interviews with about 40 employees. The meetings occurred outside the factory. Despite the small sample size, the human rights advocates believe poor working conditions to be widespread in the Chinese IT sector. Most employees are migrant workers who wouldn't rebel against the long working hours, poor wages and substandard hygienic conditions.

Human rights advocates are now demanding that IT companies make greater efforts to improve working conditions at their suppliers. For instance, regular inspections should take place, said Weed representative Butollo. In order to ramp up pressure, the organization has started a series of informational events in several German cities. Butollo is also requesting that government agencies at the national, regional and local level attach specific social and ecological criteria to public contract orders. This could soon become much easier if Germany's federal parliament approves a proposed reform of the country's public procurement law.


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