Planet Labor realised an article regarding forced labour in the electronic sector using the voices of various experts, mainly Pauline Overeem, international coordinator of the GoodElectronics network, Joseph Paul, from the Malaysian NGO Tenaganita, Rob Lederer, Executive Director of the EICC et Martine Combemale Executive Director of RHSF.
Article number 9160 from 29.06.2015
Forced labour: despite efforts, the electronics sector is still the underperformer
Par Jessica Agache-Gorse
139 graves and abandoned camps, which are thought to have housed hundreds of people, have been discovered. At the end of May, Malaysia was once again faced with a truth which has eaten away at the country for many years: migrant trafficking, which often leads to forced labour. Malaysia is not, however, the only one; this is also an issue in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, as well as Singapore and Taiwan. Many Asian countries are affected by this abuse, which comes in various forms. The electronics sector, expanding greatly thanks to the boom of smartphones, tablets and other gadgets, has become one of the sectors most at risk when it comes to human rights in the workplace.
In 2013, the International Labour Organisation estimated that across the globe almost 21 million people were victims of forced labour. In Malaysia, almost one third of the 350,000 employees in the electronics sector are thought to be working in conditions comparable to slavery, according to a shock study published in 2014 by the NGO Vérité*.
Exploitation spreads. “We have led a lot of campaigns about this, also with big companies that are concerned, but there are still a lot of problems because the electronic industry has grown hugely”, confirms Pauline Overeem, international coordinator of the GoodElectronics network, which has been fighting since 2006 for the respect of human rights in this sector. She adds that “the situation will get worse because more and more goods are coming from the electronics industry now and because the exploitation of people is spreading from one country to another. Forced labour can also take really different forms. For example, in China, there are actually ‘worker students’ forced to work as regular workers for one or two years, just so they can obtain their degree. It’s difficult to know the extent of a problem like this because human rights organisations and unions do not have a lot of space to act and express their views. But it’s obvious that, very often, social audits conducted by companies are not detecting forced labour”.
Unknown indicators. Martine Combemale, director of the NGO Human Resources Without Borders (RHSF), also believes that the audits which are traditionally carried out often gloss over this problem. She says that knowledge of the issue is lacking, remarking that a pedagogical document about forced labour will be put online, on the RHSF website, in September, so that trade unions, companies and consumers are better informed. “Forced labour does not mean that employees are not payed”, she reminds us, “Paradoxically, it most often concerns migrants who come, even voluntarily, to work extra hours!” Convention 29** precisely defines this type of exploitation, but RHSF is, for its part, putting forward four key indicators of forced labour. “First of all, the worker gives their consent, even if they are vitiated, because they do not understand the language, for example. There is also a notion of constraint, as the employee does not have a choice, they must work to reimburse the recruitment agency, which the employee has paid to come to the country, paying a sum which could amount to three years’ salary. Then there is the problem of employees being isolated; no trade union, no representative. There is also a loss of freedom of movement because their documentation is confiscated by the agency or the employer”.
In Malaysia, the broken dream of migrants. These four points can be seen in the stories of workers arriving from Myanmar, Syria, Nepal, Indonesia or even Pakistan, as Joseph Paul, from the Malaysian NGO Tenaganita, tells us. “Forced labour is really common in Malaysia because we have a situation of full-employment and we need a lot of workers”, he states. “Officially, there are 3 million migrants here but in reality there are at least 6 million (…) Recently, an agency brought fifteen workers from Bangladesh who of course have paid to come. They were closed in houses until they were “sold”. These migrants don’t have any work permit and usually the agencies take their passports. So they are accepting to work every day in really tough conditions because they also got into debt in order to come. Calling the police does not help them because they would be the first ones arrested”. Joseph Paul goes on to explain that in a country which is plagued by corruption and faced with an inactive government, Teneganita is trying to “negotiate with companies to get better work conditions, and better wages, for these migrants who don’t want to go back home with nothing”, he also says that despite these bad experiences, workers continue to arrive because “the people who are coming have nothing. They think that the migrants who are abused are just unlucky, because they want to believe in their lucky star. Also the problem comes from these recruitment agencies which are really good at convincing them and promise beautiful things”.
Recruitment agencies, the key to the problem? It is precisely because of these false promises that RHSF and many of the other organisations fighting against this plague would like to prevent it by prohibiting the use of recruitment agencies. The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) — which has drawn up a code of good corporate citizenship, followed by more than 100 companies in the sector including Apple, Acer, IBM and Blackberry — is, for its part, less categorical. “Combating forced labour is complicated by multiple factors including multi-tiered labour brokerages, migrant workforces, complex legal environments, and hiring quotas that are controlled by employment agencies in some countries, thereby preventing direct hiring or making it extremely difficult. Thus, recruitment agencies are needed and/or required in certain places”, Rob Lederer, Executive Director of the EICC, states. The last major advance for the EICC’s code, which prohibits the confiscation of passports and key documents and demands that employment contracts be written in the language of the worker, was completely abolishing all kinds of payments made by candidates to agencies, while the previous code still allowed for a payment equal to one month’s salary.
Volontary steps versus a change of model. But do the companies which are part of this coalition really follow the code to the letter? GoodsElectronic is doubtful. “The EICC’s code is not bad but is still a voluntary one. A company which does not respect it is not punished. Even if a company is never happy with the idea of exploiting migrants, their first objective is to make profits. The problem is there is a conflict with this business model and the workers’ rights. If the model is not changing, the situation can’t change. Companies are coming to these countries because there are no unions, no wage negotiations and such low wages…” Rob Lederer, however, defends the good will of the EICC members: “Our member compliance requires that members conduct risk assessments on 100 percent of their own manufacturing facilities, and suppliers that represent 80 percent of their total spend. And we require that members audit 25 percent of their most at-risk facilities and suppliers each year. We use an independent Audit Program Manager (APM) (…). The EICC is currently conducting confidential shadow audits in Malaysia”.
Local managers at the centre of STMicroelectronics’ strategy. The FrancoItalian multinational STMicroelectronics, which joined the EICC in 2005, is one of the rare companies to agree to talk about this taboo topic with us. “Our aim is to eradicate all forms of situation presenting a risk of bonded labour in our operations”, Julia Genovini — in charge of social responsibility within the group — announced via email. To this end: “We have put in place strict procedures to control labour agents on their practices (…). We also train local managers to address some potential issues. Our task is not easy because the issue of forced labour needs sometimes to be addressed with several levels of labour agents and contractors in the sending and receiving countries and we decided to focus -as a first step- our efforts on the communication, awareness and control of our next-tier contractors. A key success factor is to find appropriate solutions with local managers who have the right expertise and experience”. STMicroelectronics repeats this; its principle is to count on “communication, training, on-going dialogue”.
A preventive method. This same idea of dialogue is defended by RHSF, as it is not about having a “Manichean vision”, Martine Combemale continues. “We are negotiating with companies with employees in forced labour and we are trying to change things internally, so that we understand the mechanisms which push companies to resort to this”. To avoid being faced with this problem, however, Martine Combemale offers a few pieces of advice: “the preventive method is to pose questions as regards its purchasing policy. Is the sole worry of buyers time frames and costs? It is crucial to attribute importance to ethics and to check that our policy is taken forward. Finally, it is important to analyse, as far as possible, subcontracting by looking at the risks in each country through the RHSF’s maps***, then identifying the companies which are most at risk, and see whether there is a dependence on this company. It’s also necessary to conduct audits which are more advanced than those conducted currently, in particular through the support of someone who works on site”.
* http:// www.verite.org/sites/default/files/images/VeriteForcedLaborMalaysianElectronics2014.pdf
*** RHSF gives its members maps which detail the social risks in each country.
Planet Labor, 29 June 2015, nº 9160- www.planetlabor.com