Ten facts about your computer: Health, hardware and the toll on women

21 February 2017

Photograph of Seagate Wuxi China Factory Tour by Robert Scoble, Original image

The top-end of the computer industry is still seen as a sexy place to be. The culture may be designed to wed you to the job, but its a pairing that many professionals envy. And of course, as this week’s protest is designed to highlight, this side of the industry is not where the women are. The women are often in a darker side of the valley, the side that makes the toys that the (predominantly) boys play with.1

The women are often in a darker side of the valley, the side that makes the toys that the (predominantly) boys play with.

This article takes a look at where our hardware comes from, the electronics factories situated in primarily Asian countries, and the challenges facing the people, primarily women, who work there, through ten issues that impact upon women workers in the electronics industry.

  1. Women workers in the Global South actively resist exploitation.
    In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the electronics industry moved into Asian countries, as large companies voraciously searched to lower costs, many ‘newly industrialising countries’ deliberately marketed a feminised workforce on the grounds of their compliance and complacency.2 While this stereotype should have been laid to rest through both feminist scholarship (such as Aihwa Ong’s anthropological study in Malaysia) and due to the continually repressive environments faced by women workers in countries such as China and Indonesia. Yet the stereotype persists – and it is pernicious in fomenting activist solidarity. If the workers in electronics factories are, like those in garment factories, fundamentally different from the consumers of electronics, there is no need for solidarity. If they are exercising choice, then there is no need for solidarity. But the active resistance of women workers, such as in China, breaks this myth. Just like the consumers of electronics, women who produce these products want a decent standard of living, safe, fairly remunerated work and time to spend with friends, family and on leisure.
  1. Resistance is not futile.
    A second strand of thought argues that even if consumers engage in solidarity actions, this is futile for two reasons. First, because the factories will just move to the next cheapest, least regulated environment. There is some truth in this, but there are costs involved in the move, and increased international solidarity, including demands for transparency and accountability from the retailers has helped to undermine this (but see below for limitations). Second, is because of the authoritarian, unresponsive regimes where factories are often located. Yet, we have seen workers in countries with diverse labour regimes such as China (good laws, bad implementation) and Indonesia (poor laws, poor implementation) undergoing reform, pushing poor practices further onto the periphery. In the main manufacturing centres in China the conditions facing workers have improved as a result of labour activism within the factories.
    In the main manufacturing centres in China the conditions facing workers have improved as a result of labour activism within the factories.
  2. The unhealthy environment.
    This part of the story starts in South Korea, with the death in 2007 of 22-year-old Yumi Hwang. She had started work in Samsung Electronics’ Giheung plant at the age of 17. Just two years later, she was diagnosed with acute leukemia, the first publicly known case in what activists claim is a pattern afflicting young women in the plant. One shocking statistic – of the five women who had graduated from one school in 2000, and then went to work in a Samsung factory, only one was still healthy in 2016. One had died, three were bedridden.

    Original Image source. Title: Factory Workers
    These cases are not isolated. A study was recently conducted by the Centre for Development and Integration (CDI) and Oxfam Solidarity Belgium into the conditions facing workers in the electronics industry in Vietnam. These workers are predominantly ‘women aged between 18 and 30’. The report cites a Ministry of Health report from 2012 which reveals that 28,000 workers had occupational illnesses, with a tenth of these due to chemicals. But the more recent 2014 survey showed that as many as 200,000 workers are at risk due to unsafe working conditions, due to the chemicals used in the manufacturing process. [3] While the symptoms reported do not include life-threatening diseases, workers are reported to be concerned about the impact on their health and quality of life.
  3. The right to organise
    Preventing workers from forming national, industry-based unions, rather than being confined to in-house unions, is one of the key ways in which employers, and the complicit states, maintain the poor conditions that electronics factory workers face. Denying the right to organise into trade unions helps to ensure this compliance. It has also been ensured by state action – the intervention by the military in Indonesian labour matters has been pervasive since the 1950s, and whether this has changed substantively since the reform movement of the late 1990s is still unclear.4 Further, even industry leaders, such as Hewlett-Packard have developed codes of conduct based upon the “local laws”, which often prohibit the right to organise (in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia).5 Of all the rights included in Codes of Conduct, freedom of association, which is the right to belong to a trade union, is the one most often flouted. This is in part because the codes themselves pay “lip service” to freedom of association.6 Yet, the importance of trade union organising in protecting workers’ rights is well-documented. To protect the other rights listed here, this one is vital.
    Preventing workers from forming national, industry-based unions, rather than being confined to in-house unions, is one of the key ways in which employers, and the complicit states, maintain the poor conditions that electronics factory workers face.
  4. The right to a fair wage
    This is another right which has proved sticky, in terms of resistance to change even among what are apparently the most well-meaning corporations. While it is comparatively easy to measure quantitatively whether wages are increasing, whether a wage is fair or not is much harder to measure – it is only recently that economists have begun devising a method for this.7 However, there is clear correlation between the success of advocacy for a fair wage and the ability to organise, thus the right to a fair wage is contingent upon the broader social context within which a factory is located – including the right to organise.
  1. The right to free time
    In particular, this represents the right to refuse overtime. This is encoded into legislation in countries such as China, but often at the factory-level managers can make over-time a condition of employment, getting employees to sign ‘voluntary’ requests for overtime.
  1. The right to parent
    In an investigation into 12 electronics factories in Shenzhen, China, only one was found to be providing the statutory minimum maternity leave. Even comparatively well-paid workers can find it hard to find time for breastfeeding or other parenting responsibilities, as came to light in a patent trial between Samsung and Apple in 2012. “Samsung Electronics’ chief designer, Wang Jee-yuen, said she slept two or three hours a night for three months when working on designing app icons for the Galaxy S smartphone. She broke into tears when recalling how she had to spend many hours on her project, away from her infant baby. “The breastfeeding had to come to a stop,” Wang said. “Samsung is a very hard-working company.””
    Even comparatively well-paid workers can find it hard to find time for breastfeeding or other parenting responsibilities, as came to light in a patent trial between Samsung and Apple in 2012.
  2. The right to respect
    Sexual harassment, verbal harassment, cramped sleeping quarters and inadequate hygiene facilities, all of these still play a major role in electronics factories in the Global South. If workers had more secure employment rights and avenues through which complaints could be safely addressed (rather than resulting in punitive action against the victim), they would be able to take action.
  1. The role you can play
    However, this is not entirely a story of gloom. Many of the companies who are the final pre-consumer destination for these parts are susceptible to consumer pressure – Apple and Google have both responded to campaigns on issues related to human rights abuses and climate change, for instance. Further, the case of China shows that impact of worker activism in improving conditions. As consumers, we have the ability to show support for workers through our consumption decisions, especially if these are backed up by letters to manufacturers explaining the standards we expect. As activists, we can show solidarity for these workers by donating to worker organisations working on these issues, and demanding governments enforce the minimal labour standards outlined by the International Labour Organisation – which countries such as Malaysia, also a large electronics manufacturer, has not done.8
    Many of the companies who are the final pre-consumer destination for these parts are susceptible to consumer pressure – Apple and Google have both responded to campaigns on issues related to human rights abuses and climate change.
  2. The role governments can play.
    Lastly, we can put pressure on our own governments, wherever they are, to implement legislation in support of these workers and others in the hardware chain. Currently, the Trump White House, for example, is overturning regulatory controls on ‘conflict minerals’. Keep informed of these and other changes in how governments are working against humanity, and then take action!
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Footnotes

1 Though this stereotype is slowly changing thanks to the hard work of women in the industry. https://www.witi.com/

2 See Ong, A. (1987). Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia. Albany, USA, State University of New York Press.

3 A news item on the report is available at http://vietnamnews.vn/society/250185/electronics-workers-face-daily-haza…. As yet the report is not available on either the CDI or Oxfam-Solidarity Belgium websites.

4 See Hadiz, V. R. (1998). “Reformasi Total? Labor after Suharto.” Indonesia(66): 109-125.
fn5. Distelhorst, G., R. M. Locke, et al. (2015). “Production goes global, compliance stays local: Private regulation in the global electronics industry.” Regulation & Governance 9(3): 224-242.

6 Egels-Zanden, N & J. Merk 2014. “Private Regulation and Trade Union Rights: Why Codes of Conduct Have Limited Impact on Trade Union Rights.” Journal Of Business Ethics no. 3: 461. SwePub, EBSCOhost (accessed February 18, 2017). The report also draws attention to the difficulty in auditing the right to associate.

7 Neugebauer, Sabrina, Yasmine Emara, Christine Hellerstrom, and Matthias Finkbeiner. 2017. “Calculation of Fair wage potentials along products’ life cycle – Introduction of a new midpoint impact category for social life cycle assessment.” Journal Of Cleaner Production 1221. Academic OneFile, EBSCOhost (accessed February 18, 2017).

8 See for example, on union busting in Malaysia, https://charleshector.blogspot.com.au/2015/12/union-busting-in-malaysia-…, the website of an opposition Member of Parliament with an exemplary record of human rights activism. See also http://www.ilo.org/asia/WCMS_398777/lang—en/index.htm and

 

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