A Fair Trade notebook? - image by Damien Van Achter
The suicides at Foxconn have highlighted the issue of highly stressful working conditions in the global electronics industry. Foxconn has responded with psychologists, punch bags, swimming pools, and asking employees to promise not to kill themselves.
But these moves do nothing to change the actual working conditions. Suicide numbers are a big red herring because even if they go down, huge numbers of workers will still suffer from low wages, long hours, and many other tough and unhealthy working conditions.
A recent BBC documentary series, "Blood, Sweat and Luxuries" took six young British consumers and placed them exotic locations working in the same jobs as locals, and having to survive on the same wages.
It's an eye opening series because it showed the horrible work conditions that billions of people face daily, every week, for years, and decades. These were strong, healthy, young British adults, yet they would pass out from the back breaking work, suffer panic attacks, and many other maladies, after just a few hours on the job.
They carried huge amounts of dirt in Ghana's gold fields; they processed leather in stinking abattoirs in Ethiopia; they dug deep holes in coffee plantations; and they had to work in an electronics factory in the Philippines where workers prepared tiny components for disk drives, processing one component every 3 seconds.
If they even took a moment to glance up from their tasks, or be distracted, they would fall behind in their quota and have their wages docked. It was incredible how much work had to be done for so little money by so many people. And the reason they were paid so little is that the electronics factory had to accept tiny profit margins in order to win its contracts.
All the large tech companies such as Apple, Nokia, Dell, etc have agreements with their suppliers that they do not employ children, and that they will abide by certain standards to protect workers. But it's not clear how these are monitored, enforced, or how much in common they share across the electronics industry.
What is common across the electronics industry is a relentless focus on reducing manufacturing costs, and the largest manufacturing cost is labor; which is why employees are pushed to work faster, while maintaining high quality work, and at the lowest wages acceptable.
We reap the benefits in the form of cheap digital gadgets, gizmos, and computers. We have absolutely no idea about all the blood, sweat, and human suffering that went into creating our digital devices.
For the six young Brits that took part in that five week program, the experience was life changing. On their return they made big changes in their life styles, some changed their diets, and they all changed their buying habits. Some raised money and collected clothes and books for the families they met during their stay. And they found a new respect for Fair Trade goods.
One of them said that she used to dismiss Fair Trade coffee as some kind of marketing ploy, a trendy fashion. Now she doesn't, and is happy to pay extra because she knows it does make a difference in the lives of many people.
Would you buy a Fair Trade iPhone or Android smartphone? Would you buy a Fair Trade Dell or HP PC if there were such choices? And how much extra would you be willing to pay?
And more importantly, what would it take for you to be assured that the Fair Trade premium was making a difference in the lives of electronics workers?
It wasn't that long ago when PCs typically cost $5,000 and lots of people paid it willingly. These days you can pick up powerful notebooks for under $1000, and netbooks for under $400. And a $100 smartphone is more powerful than PCs from just a few years ago.
Surely, we should be able to afford to pay a Fair Trade premium on electronics without too much suffering on our part.
And hopefully, the global media attention on the Foxconn suicides will result in improved working conditions for millions of electronics workers, and Fair Trade electronics goods will become commonplace.