Finding an answer
HP has taken a step to try and rectify matters, by taking part in a trial aimed to bring corporate social responsibility back into the workers' sphere, educating them about their rights and providing ways for them to resolve issues and create a better working environment.
The two-year pilot program took place in 2007 in Dongguan, southern China, and involved HP, its Chinese suppliers Delta Electronics and Chicony, as well as three non-governmental organisations, SACOM, Labor Education and Service Network (LESN) and the Chinese Working Women Network (CWWN).
SACOM facilitated and evaluated the training projects at two factories, which were organised by LESN and CWWN, SACOM's Chan says.
At Delta Electronics, LESN trained 1549 workers in basic labour rights — including providing every worker with a pocket-sized guide to the EICC and Chinese Labour laws in simplified Chinese — and also conducted several consultations for middle and lower management staff in corporate responsibility.
At the Chicony factory, CWWN trained one group of 2714 frontline machine operators and a second group of 30 worker committee members. It also established a hotline for workers to report problems confidentially, which helped to "manage grievances and to nurture a positive work culture".
The pilot was the first time that a vendor, suppliers and not-for-profit groups all worked together to implement a worker-based CSR model for worker rights, according to SACOM's Chan.
The project helped reduce the factory's staff turnover rates and resolve disputes in a quicker time frame, she says.
It also reduced HP's cost of supplier audit and improved its CSR compliance, because Delta and Chicony were admitted to the EICC after they completed the program.
Yet the project's biggest benefit was to empower workers with information about their rights, allowing them to better negotiate with their managers and supervisors, Chan says.
"In total at these two factories, over 4000 workers gained better knowledge about legal rights and how, using their corporate mechanism, they could influence some decisions concerned with wages and working hours.
"This gives workers confidence. How would they negotiate or bargain with the managers or the facilitation of communication is improved."
She says one key to the project's success was that it was run by independent groups, using independent sources of funding.
"We don't trust the suppliers themselves would be willing to devote lots of time and resources, or to raise awareness about worker rights, simply because the factories themselves have to keep just-in-time delivery and are much more concerned about production time and efficiency.
"So being a facilitator as well as an independent project evaluator, SACOM had a kind of autonomy or independence to make a judgement about how far this program has achieved, what are the limitations, what is the next step?"
While she criticises HP for its lack of follow-up on the pilot program, she says the vendor was more genuine than its competitors.
"When I compare it with others companies like Dell, Nokia, Apple and others, HP is already more progressive and open," she says. "They did finance the project and pressured the suppliers, when the Delta managers or Chicony managers didn't co-operate enough.
"I do believe that our promise of not campaigning against the two factories in those two years, it gave them time to reflect on some issues that were highlighted and they were more willing to listen to us in the middle and final stages of the project."
HP did not provide a spokesperson for comment for this story and referred to the CSR measures outlined on its website.
A more recent incident did, however, cast doubt on exactly how much HP is doing. Workers at a factory in Australia owned by HP-supplier Foxteq says they were being treated like robots. HP says it is investigating the matter.