Last week in London a ground-breaking international symposium was held on responsible IT procurement in public procurement, an event supported by the London Universities Purchasing Consortium (LUPC); the University of Greenwich Business, Human Rights and the Environment Research Group; and Electronics Watch. “Socially Responsible Public Procurement of Electronic Products: Challenges of Monitoring the Global Supply Chain Symposium” was the full title.
One of the interesting and shocking presentations at last week’s symposium at Greenwich University concerned the use of students in Chinese factories. Danwatch, an independent Danish media and research organisation, produced a report titled “Servants of servers” which looked at “rights violations in the supply chain of ICT equipment in European universities”.
Clearly, this equipment is not only used in universities, but as Danwatch points out, universities as public procurers have a particular responsibility to protect human rights when doing business with suppliers. There is also a parallel in that whilst European students are studying and working with freedom, their counterparts in China are participants in what is effectively “forced labour”.
Danwatch looked at a particular factory in China – the Wistron Corporation in Zhongshan. The factory manufactures for the three leading server brands used by the higher education sector and many others in Europe; Dell, Lenovo and HP. The Danwatch researcher interviewed students (seventeen and eighteen years old) from a number of different schools who were forced to work in “internships” in the factory over the summer, from June to October.
Whilst they are paid, this is in effect “forced labour”, as the kids are told that if they do not take up these roles, they will not be given their graduation diplomas (which presumably mean they can’t go on to university). That is coercion. And these are clearly not “internships” during which they are learning anything useful or connected with their academic study. They are simply used as production line fodder, working alongside permanent adult staff and doing ten hour shifts, with compulsory regular overtime. Danwatch also found evidence that some were working nightshifts, which is also illegal.
These conditions are violations of the standards for internships set by China itself through the Ministries of Finance and Education. The practices also breach Wistron, Dell, HP and Lenovo’s own policies and standards for student workers and internship programmes. The schools may benefit financially though and there was some talk that the teachers received additional money for supporting the practice. The firms, although they do pay the minimum wage, get a good source of young, compliant workers. But for the students, these “internships” clearly don’t add any value to their own education.
It’s a shocking story, and the Danwatch researchers were basically chased out of town once the firm and local police worked out what they were investigating. Many of the students were clearly afraid to talk to the researchers too.
When the firms involved were informed, they reacted in different ways. Dell and HP carried out their own audits and have taken some action to stop the abuse of “internships” although HP said they had “no evidence to support the presence of involuntary internships” which seems strange. Lenovo did not comment on specific issues and said they would audit in the coming months, which is a clearly unsatisfactory response. Danwatch also contacted a number of universities to seek their views, and asked about “their roles and responsibilities in protecting workers rights as education institutions”, None responded, which is also surprising and disappointing.
Both Dell and HP have committed themselves to monitor Wistron internship programmes more closely in the future. But one problem here, which was discussed in other sessions at the symposium, is that relying on supplier audits is not very effective. Suppliers may have conflicts of interest in terms of what they look for, and generally the suppliers have notice of their visits so can prepare in advance and conceal any human rights issues or abuses for the short period of the inspection.
That is one of the drivers behind Electronics Watch, which we first mentioned here, and the organisation was one of the organisers of the Greenwich event. They hope to have a mandate to carry out inspections without notice on behalf of the public sector organisations who participate in Electronics Watch and who are major end-clients of such factories. It seems like a worthwhile initiative, and we will continue to follow their progress with interest.