Restart Podcast Ep. 60: Helping electronics workers improve conditions

Electronics workers

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Omana George has dedicated herself to supporting workers’ safety for years. She is now the Monitoring Coordinator for Electronics Watch, an organisation that monitors manufacturing and supply chains in order to support “public buyers” to make more ethical and informed decisions. 

The impact of Covid on workers

George informs us that many of the long-existing problems in supply chains are only getting worse during the Covid pandemic. Stresses on the supply chain are making the impacts of “contractualisation” — the subcontracting of labour, where the company that owns the factory is not technically employing the workers in it — more devastating. And the risk of Covid means factories are only becoming more dangerous. The increasing stress on workers, a lack of health and safety measures, and a failure on the part of companies to properly pay workers are leading to unrest. George sheds some light on what provoked recent riots at an Indian factory in the iPhone supply chain for supplier Wistron.

“This industry has really been operating this way for many decades. And it’s not just in Asia, wherever they work, this is how they have worked…It is an industry which really does not put a lot of emphasis or focus on occupational health and safety and workers have really have to fight for their rights.”

Hazards in occupational health

While Covid may be making them more visible, these issues are not new. George details for us the various dangers of working in the electronics supply chain. 

One of the biggest hazards for electronics workers is chemicals and the progress on gaining worker protection has been slow. What seems to be key to creating a safer work environment is access to information. George shares some shocking stories about manufacturers failing to inform workers of the substances that they are handling.

We also take a specific look at the dangers that are specific to women in the electronics industry. George summarises many of these risks succinctly by quoting the lawyer and advocate, Amanda Hawes – “if you’re pregnant, every day is bring your child to work day.” Workers aren’t just misinformed about dangers to their own health but also the health of their children.

Moving forward with Electronics Watch

Hearing about the circumstances of workers can make us feel powerless to help but there have been some wins. We discuss a long-lasting case involving Samsung workers in South Korea. George says that it is one of the first cases where a major manufacturer has been held to account for worker illnesses and death caused by chemical exposure.

More hope also comes in the expansion of Electronics Watch’s work. They also support those working in public sector procurement by producing guidance and setting up their Occupational Health and Safety Panel. 

The landscape of electronics manufacturing is shifting and many companies are moving supply chains to other countries. We don’t know what changes this will bring but George does have hope for the future. In the meantime, we must continue to support workers through public procurement activism and amplify their voices. 

Links:

[Riot audio courtesy of Kanak News; photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson]

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