In the past two decades, the computer industry has swiftly developed as computer products have become integral to everyday life. While espousing images of progressive technology and professionalism, large brands have simultaneously neglected the exploitation of workers behind their production processes in developing countries.

Behind the Supply Chain

Since the 1990’s, computer brands have increasingly outsourced their production processes to contract manufacturers in developing countries in order to cut production costs. Today, most of the manufacturing is performed by low skilled, low wage, female workers in those countries. From 1980 to 1998, the proportion of electronic products in the exports of developing countries increased four times, from 5.3% to 22%. In 2000, developing countries exported USD$450 billion of electronic products, and the production of electronics seems to be the most profitable industry for developing countries in international trade.

Despite the profit rewarded to developing countries, they are still being continually exploited by developed countries in the volatile electronics industry. Developed countries are careful to maintain the more advanced technological processes in their own countries while outsourcing lower skilled processes to developing countries in order to manipulate the supply chain to their own advantage. In the 1990\’s, 95% of electronic products produced in Mexico were exported to the United States, but 90% of the electronic parts compiled in Mexico were imported, 85% of them from the U.S. Therefore, developing countries do not sow the primary advantage from electronics production; they are instead manipulated by countries such as the U.S. Even the minimal profit that countries such as Mexico do enjoy from electronics production are quickly forfeited as large brands meticulously search for lower production costs in less developed countries.

These decreasing production costs do not simply serve to drive down prices for consumers, but also lead to the accumulation of increasingly high revenue for large electronics corporations. Computer brands utilize various methods to reduce their production costs, and a major source of that cost is deducted from labor. They require their contract manufacturers in other countries to acquiesce to lower priced orders, and this reduced cost is sweated onto lower tiers of the supply chain, such as the basic parts manufacturer. Ultimately, this oppressively low cost is imposed onto the lowest end of the supply chain: the workers. This is the logic of the global supply chain – to pursue the lowest price, the highest efficiency, the highest flexibility, and the highest profit, with a complete disregard for workers’ rights.

Electronics Workers in China

From 1999- 2000, China’s largest exports were mobile phones and computer products. In 2000, high technology products accounted for 22% of China’s total exports. Therefore, one can imagine how many workers participated in the electronics industry alone. However, despite technological advancements, the working conditions at the factory level are still wholly undeveloped. Various production processes in the electronics industries are even more harmful to workers than in other industries.

Working Conditions

Wage and Working Hours

The basic salary of an electronics worker is often lower than the legal minimum wage provided in the local labor law. For example, the legal minimum wage in Dongguan City is 574RMB/month but our investigations have found that in some factories, workers only receive 330RMB/month as their basic salary). Workers often work overtime for prolonged hours just in order to receive a livable salary that only barely exceeds the legal minimum wage. In the end, their total number of working hours dramatically exceeds the legal maximum, including overtime. Oftentimes, workers are also denied the appropriate overtime pay. In the peak production season, the majority of workers work 120 hours per month for overtime alone. In average, they work 12-13 hours per day, without any sick leave or days off. Despite these irrationally long hours, their salaries still range from only 600-1000RMB/month. Conversely, in the low production season, workers are forced to take days off without pay. Therefore, their income in this season will decrease to 300-400 RMB/month.

Moreover, some factories will withhold or delay the payment of workers’ salaries anywhere from two weeks to more than a month. When workers want to leave the factory, even if they follow the legal requirements and inform the factory management a month before resigning, they are denied approval, especially in the peak season. If they must urgently leave, they are compelled to forfeit their withheld payments to which they are legally entitled. Therefore, this practice heavily restricts workers’ freedom of employment.

Short-term Contracts

To improve flexibility in their hiring practices, factories often hire short-term workers according to the amount of orders that they receive at any given time. Their contracts last anywhere from one to three months and these short term contracts allow factories to avoid providing benefits and assuming responsibility for its workers. For example, management oftentimes refuses to compensate female workers for pregnancy leave and simply allows their contracts expire without rehiring them. Thus, short term contracts leave workers with considerable instability.

Once hired, workers must also pay a lump sum of 500-1000 RMB to a hiring agency or to the factory directly. However, most workers are uninformed as to whether the factory provides them with occupational injury insurance or retirement insurance, which many times, they do not.

Health and Safety Problems

Workers in the electronics industry are often confronted with a severely dangerous working environment, as they face daily contact with dangerous chemicals, metallic dust, deafening noise, smoke exuded from welding, and poor ventilation. This working environment results in various occupational diseases that pose as serious threats to worker wellbeing.
A majority of these factories fail to provide occupational safety and health trainings for their workers. Workers who often come into contact with hazardous chemicals receive inadequate protection equipment as well as training regarding how to handle them. Many workers are not even informed about the type of chemicals that they frequently handle, including whether or not they are hazardous and how to appropriately equip themselves.

Causes for Occupational Diseases and Health Problems:

Workers producing computer circuit boards have to treat the boards with various chemicals using their bare hands, directly exposing their skin to toxic chemicals and resulting in irritating rashes and skin sores.

Workers who weld circuit boards or other electronics parts will often inhale smoke emanating from the welding process; this also results in skin allergies and breathing difficulties.

Monitor testing also requires strict focus on a bright screen for 12 hours a day. On average, workers test 150 monitors per hour, meaning that one monitor requires 24 seconds of testing. This heavy workload prevents workers from resting their eyes and recuperating. Similar to workers who assemble minuscule parts into the circuit board, the eyes of workers in the monitor department often feel strained and they suffer from perpetually blurred vision.

The compression of computer components also creates deafening noise, causing workers in this environment to experience auditory problems. Moreover, workers who compress the outer shell of the computer must interact with heavy machinery while lacking protection, thus resulting in numerous accidents, the most common being finger amputations.

In the polishing department, workers who polish metal components lack protective masks, often resulting in the inhalation of metallic dust. They experience dry, sore throats and hoarseness.

All of these occupational diseases affect the long term wellbeing of workers, but most of the workers lack long term relationship with their respective factories. Therefore, when they encounter more serious health problems that develop as a result of factory exploitation, they are not able to hold the factory accountable and are unable to acquire the compensation that they are rightfully owed.

Working Situation

Workers in the electronics industry are constantly under heavy pressure in harsh conditions. They must finish high production quotas without committing any errors. In some factories, if workers do make an error, they will be fined up to a day’s salary.

Keyboard Production

In factories manufacturing keyboards, one worker must attach 6-7 keys to a keyboard and finish 300 keyboards per hour. This means that workers have to assemble 6-7 keys per keyboard within12 seconds.

Computer Assembly

The production line that specializes in assembling the final package from half finished goods and parts is composed of about 115 workers, and on average, assembles one computer every 9 seconds. There are 480 computers assembled per hour, and each production line can produce 10,000 computers in a day. There are workers who must carry a heavy load of 10,000 computers a day, and each one weighs about 10 kilograms.

In order to increase efficiency, factories often neglect worker health. Workers must stand for nearly twelve hours performing the above mentioned assembly line tasks. In the past, workers used to be able to sit along the production line, producing one computer every 17 seconds. In order to double efficiency, factory management now requires workers to stand while assembling materials. After a day\’s work, workers often experience discomfort, soreness, and rigidness. Moreover, many factories restrict the time in which workers can use the restroom and take water breaks and speaking during working hours is prohibited. In addition, the management often verbally harasses workers, resulting in cumbersome stress and fear. As a result, some workers endure repeated nightmares.

Dormitories

Factories often provide workers with housing, with up to 15-20 people in one room. The dormitory conditions in different factories vary greatly. Nonetheless, many dormitories have poor ventilation, inadequate sanitation facilities, and hot water supply. Workers also often complain that the factory fails to provide food with adequate nutritional value.