It's time to put ethics into IT

Summary:A report published this week finds sweatshop working conditions at the contractors who make the components for Dell, HP, IBM and other brand manufacturers. It should be taken as a wake-up call for the industry

If we can lay one criticism at the report published this week by CAFOD into working conditions for the people who make the PCs that we have sitting on our desks right now, it is that it is way too late.

During the 90s, when the sweatshops that produced Nike's trainers had everyone hopping mad, in the world of technology all anybody cared about was rising stock prices and the fact that everything just kept getting smaller, faster, cheaper and just plain cooler. There was more than enough fascination at the bright young things of Silicon Valley to keep us transfixed and the only downside of technology was those unvested stock options.

For sure, IT has tremendous potential to change the world for the better. The Internet can help improve literacy in places where books, even many centuries after the invention of the printing press, still barely reach. Software development provides skilled and relatively well-paid jobs in one of the few industries not at the mercy of the G8 nations, allowing many developing countries to compete for the first time with the West on a playing field that is not only level but perhaps even tipped slightly in their favour.

But hardware manufacturing is a different story, as the CAFOD report makes clear. Here, the same practice of outsourcing that makes software development so beneficial is having an altogether different effect.

CAFOD tells of employees humiliated during interviews -- sometimes stripped naked and given pregnancy tests -- and then forced to work long hours in sometimes health-endangering conditions, with no right of association and no employment rights. At one plant, which makes monitors, managers have the right to fire workers who step on the grass in the factory complex.

CAFOD singled out three companies for scrutiny in the report: Dell, HP and IBM, which between them produce roughly a third of all PCs that shipped in 2003, according to analyst firm IDC. The working conditions that CAFOD exposed were not necessarily found within these companies, but at the companies further down the supply chain. Contract manufacturers such as Solectron, Flextronics, Celestia and Samina-SCI are all but invisible to consumers of technology, but they have largely supplanted the big brand names in the manufacturing process. These four companies each had revenues over $10bn in 2002.

Cutting costs in this supply chain is hugely important to the big brand 'manufacturers'. Dell, HP and IBM all report massive savings -- billions of dollars -- in their supply chain over the past few years. It is the squeezing of this supply chain, where big contracts can be lost over a few percentage points on a price, that is largely responsible for the appalling working conditions that CAFOD found.

So what to do?

Topics: Tech Industry

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