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An ethical short circuit? Behind the Barcode opens up the electronics industry


Baptist World Aid has today released the Electronics Industry Trends Report and Ethical Electronics Guide as part of the Behind the Barcode series. This is the second Behind the Barcode report, following the release of the Australian Fashion Report and Ethical Fashion Guide in 2013.

The new guide empowers consumers to buy electronics ethically by grading 45 brands from 39 of the world’s biggest tech companies. The gradings assess the systems companies have in place to protect workers in the supply chain from exploitation, forced labour and child labour.

We talk to Gershon Nimbalker, Advocacy Manager at Baptist World Aid about the report and guide.

1. Tell us about the Behind the Barcode series. What problem are you trying to solve?

The Electronics Industry Trends Report is the second report to be released in a series investigating the ethical practices of consumer industries. Since the release of the Australian Fashion Report last year, thousands of consumers have worked to influence the labour rights practices of companies, and brands including K-Mart, Target, Woolworths and Coles have sought to engage with the issues and take action to improve their grades.

The series ultimately seeks to end worker exploitation and improve living conditions around the world, by targeting various industries. We will be expanding our research into the sportswear and whitegoods industries later this year.


2. What should consumers consider in relation to labour rights when buying electronic items? Are there issues that are common or specific to this industry?

When investigating the electronics industry, we’ve used an A – F grading system, measured through key electronics supply chain production phases, including:

  1. Raw materials level: extraction of minerals
  2. Inputs level: smelting and refining and/or component manufacturing
  3. Final Manufacturing

In every stage of production, electronics companies are at risk of using forced labour, and we’ve particularly focused whether the company agrees to pay a living wage. Only one company, Nokia, could prove this, and no company received an ‘A’ grade.

3. How does the Electronics Guide work? How can consumers use it to buy more ethically?

There are two key parts to the guide that consumers can use in purchasing decisions: the grade a company received and whether they guarantee a living wage. The grades were assessed by looking at the following four categories:

  1. Policies – we evaluated the brand’s code of conduct, sourcing and subcontracting policies, and involvement with other organisations working to combat child and forced labour.
  2. Traceability & Transparency – we looked at how thoroughly the brand understands its own supply chain, and whether it discloses critical information to the public.
  3. Monitoring and Training – we measured the adequacy of the brand’s monitoring program to address the specific issues of child and forced labour.
  4. Worker Rights – we assessed the degree to which the brand supports worker well-being by ensuring that workers are able to claim their rights at work through collective bargaining or worker owned cooperatives, and whether workers earn a living wage.

We’d encourage consumers to use the guide while they shop by buying the better graded companies, and writing to the companies they haven’t purchased from to let them know why.

Consumer power is HUGE and has a big influence on the practices of these electronics brands, but they need to hear that you’ve chosen a competitor instead, because of their unethical practices.


4. How did you find the information to rate the brands?

It was a very thorough and rigorous process. We collated a range of publicly available information and self-reported outcomes from companies. We also sent each a questionnaire asking for a response to 61 different statements about their policies, traceability and transparency, training and monitoring, and worker rights.

Some companies publish their policies and even list their suppliers, and were graded accordingly. Some also engaged with the questionnaire process and provided fuller details. Disappointingly though, many companies neither publish any meaningful information nor engaged with our approaches and were graded down accordingly. Australian brands Kogan and Dick Smith Electronics were graded poorly, due to lack of engagement with our researchers and no transparency with their policies.

How did the brands rate?

  • 97% of electronics companies could not demonstrate they were paying workers enough to meet their basic needs.
  • Only 18% of companies had even partial knowledge of where their raw materials were sourced.
  • 34% of companies had a code of conduct which included workers’ rights to collective bargaining, but only one company could demonstrate that there was a collective bargaining agreement in place.

5. What positive impacts flow from consumers choosing the top rated brands in the Electronics Guide?

We know through our work in the field that payment of a ‘living wage’ is critical in empowering individuals and communities to overcome poverty.

Workers in developing countries work long hours in often oppressive conditions to make the phones, TVs and tablets that we enjoy. The additional cost to ensure that they are rewarded for their efforts with a wage that is sufficient for them and their families to live is only a few dollars per individual product. By some estimates, it’s as little as two to nine dollars per smart phone or less than 1.5 per cent of the total price.

When workers receive a living wage, they gain dignity from their work and are able to provide for their family’s food, shelter, health and education, which ultimately allows their family and community to break free from the poverty cycle.

Download the Behind the Barcode Electronics Report.

Barcode-2 copy

 Also relevant

This 2012 opinion piece on how to deal with the unethical gadget problem.

Photo Credits: gp314 via (cc)

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