Apple recently, finally banned bonded servitude in its supply factories, which means those factories can't mistreat workers by withholding pay and passports until they pay off the cost it took to hire them. Bonded servitude — forcing labourers to work for free — is a human rights violation. It was about damn time.
But as I said at the time, hold the applause. Because it's 2015 and bonded servitude shouldn't have been a thing happening to begin with. Applauding a corporation for progressively getting less human rights violation-y is not something any of us should be interested in doing. These companies (Apple especially) are amassing ludicrous amounts of wealth, partly because they have deliberately chosen overseas manufacturing to keep costs down. Our tolerance for any worker rights violations should be zero, because every time, say, Samsung gets back an audit revealing the majority of its factories do not comply with overtime laws is an example of how companies prioritise greed over establishing ethical practices.
This is an open call for any more information about major tech companies' overseas factory practices. How are these bans enforced? What are the exact repercussions factories found using bonded labour face? Do you work for one of these companies and know more about their practices? I would love to hear from you.
I asked several other big tech companies what their official policies on bonded servitude are — my primary question was: Do your company explicitly prohibit bonded servitude in its supply factories, as Apple now does?
Here is what I learned, and some questions that linger:
Apple's biggest smartphone-making rival insists it does not use bonded servitude in its supply chain. Here's the statement a spokesperson gave me:
Samsung values the global network of employees at all of our manufacturing facilities. We follow the local and global labour standards and regulations and our suppliers are required to do the same. We have put into place very strict policies that are designed to prevent and address issues including bonded labour.
Under the policies, suppliers are required to prohibit their agencies from collecting commissions from employees of the suppliers in connection with employment. To ensure these policies are enforced, Samsung regularly audits suppliers, and bonded labour is a required field of the audit.
Samsung did not explain when it began including bonded labour in its audits. So even though it has the same stance as Apple, it's hard to gauge whether it has been a leader in the field of not allowing modern slavery or if it also only recently put these policies into place. This makes me wonder which company actually banned bonded servitude first.
The only ones who gave me a timeline gave me bans that happened in the past few years, so it doesn't seem like any of them had a head start.
LG did not respond to my request. Its Supplier Code of Conduct prohibits bonded labour. But again, there's a lack of concrete examples available about how LG and other companies go about checking up on bonded servitude and other factory conditions. Are there monthly audits? Or just annual? How many instances of bonded labour would have to occur before LG broke ties with a factory?
Toshiba's North America PR person told me I had to go through Toshiba corporate in Japan. The Toshiba corporate media contact did not respond to me, however.
HP's spokesperson pointed me to an announcement about the company's Foreign Migrant Worker Standard, started in 2014. This standard does explicitly prohibit bonded servitude. So HP, like Apple, has taken a strong stance against bonded servitude... that it cemented only a few months ago.
Lenovo's spokesperson emphasised that the company "most certainly does not practice "bonded servitude" in its factories." He noted that Lenovo conducts public audits, and participates in the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition and uses the EICC code of conduct, which doesn't allow forced labour, as well as the UN Global Compact, which doesn't allow forced labour.
The language used about bonded labour in the supply chain was a little weird. The spokesperson said Lenovo "works to ensure that none of our suppliers engage in this practice, as well." I asked if that meant it was explicitly prohibited, and what the consequences are if Lenovo does catch suppliers using bonded servitude. I am awaiting a response.
Nokia did not respond to my request.
Huawei did not respond to my request.
Dell did not respond to my request. I found its supply chain standards online:
Debt bondage: Forced, bonded or indentured labour; involuntary prison labour; slavery or trafficking of persons shall not to be used. All work will be voluntary in the production of Dell™ products and services.
As with the other companies, the language is fairly explicit, but again, there's nothing on how Dell enforces these bans.
Sony did not respond to my request. I found its supply chain standards on the internet, though, and they forbid debt bondage and holding passports. Interestingly, they forbid "excessive fees" and say that "all fees to workers must be disclosed." But I'm wondering what the definition of excessive fees is; perhaps recruitment fees are allowed to a certain extent.
The fact that these tech companies didn't bother emailing a blogger back is not, of course, evidence that they allow bonded servitude. But the lack of transparency is not great. Companies should be aggressively defending their supply chain conditions under intense scrutiny. Even the companies that answered me did not explain how they enforce their bans beyond saying "we have audits."
HP's Global Manager of Supply Chain Responsibility, Bob Mitchell, appears the most transparent about the company's evolution on workers' rights, but these companies should be eager to highlight the practical steps they take to prevent and punish modern slavery. How many instances of discovering bonded labour would it take to sever ties with a factory? How do these companies make sure that factories pay back workers who they have withheld wages from or forced to pay recruitment fees?
Again: This is an open call for any more information about major tech companies' overseas factory practices. Can you prove any of these no response companies do or do not allow bonded servitude (or any other human rights violation)? Do you work for one of these companies and know more about their practices? I would love to hear from you.