Calling tech companies to account

COMMENTARY--A report which lifts the lid on the appalling conditions faced by workers in tech manufacturing sites in developing nations should make the world's tech heavyweights duck for cover.The report -- prepared by the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) -- directs particular criticism towards IBM, Dell and Hewlett Packard over the fact their codes of conduct for labour standards fall well below United Nations standards.

COMMENTARY--A report which lifts the lid on the appalling conditions faced by workers in tech manufacturing sites in developing nations should make the world's tech heavyweights duck for cover.

The report -- prepared by the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) -- directs particular criticism towards IBM, Dell and Hewlett Packard over the fact their codes of conduct for labour standards fall well below United Nations standards.

The report also exposes horrendous breaches of human rights by contract manufacturers in developing countries who provide componentry to large tech companies.

Each of the tech heavyweights targeted -- of course -- released suitably humble statements thanking CAFOD for their work and promising, essentially, that "it won't happen in the future".

However, your writer cannot help but wonder whether a) the tech companies will remain quite so focused on remediating their contractors' behaviours once the media spotlight moves elsewhere and b) why there are no sanctions against these companies for their appalling behaviour in the first place.

Of course, the tech sector is not alone in practising the behaviour exposed in the report. The corporate world generally has long been a notorious abuser of the more lax regulatory regime and the cheaper, far less regulated labour market that exists in developing countries.

This is no excuse. The tech sector leads in innovation and has no excuse not to take a highly public, committed stance against exploitation and labour rights abuses. This seems unlikely, however, with tech companies' interest in developing markets lying either in reaping the rich cost benefits of relocating operations away from regulated labour markets or on flogging product to the locals.

The CAFOD report -- whose release coincides with the arrival of Bill Gates, Carly Fiorina, Michael Dell and other 'digerati' at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland -- comes as tech companies fight to head off any move by candidates in the US election to move to regulate the shifting of jobs to less expensive nations.

The Computer Systems Policy Project -- whose members include the chief executives of Dell, Intel and Hewlett-Packard -- released a report earlier this month arguing against any regulation, claiming that protectionism can end up "hampering innovation and crippling ... industries".

However, they and other advocacy groups such as the Information Technology Industry Association of America face a tough fight to convince candidates such as Massachusetts Senator John Kerry -- the Democrats' current front-runner -- who warns that, if elected, he will try to slow the practice of "offshoring," as it is known.

Based on the evidence of the CAFOD report, the tech sector does not deserve to reap the benefits of offshoring. One could only envisage companies being able to do so under a system of strict regulation, involving regular, stringent audits of wages and conditions and severe, legally enforceable penalties for breaches. The system would have to encompass contractors and sub-contractors as well as the tech company's own operations. However, the legalities of such a cross-jurisdictional regime would most likely be prohibitive and the regime itself be fiercely opposed by the tech sector. One can only feel for those who contribute to the global tech sector's vast turnover and profitability while barely earning enough to eat and facing the constant threat of indignities such as being sacked if pregnant.

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