Ruth Walters discusses the work of Sussex Sweatshop Free and their involvement with tech workers’ rights
Sussex Sweatshop Free is a student-led campaign group working to raise awareness of the electronics industry and aims to pressure the University of Sussex to affiliate with the organisation ‘Electronics Watch’.
The industry has grown at an exponential rate over the last decade, workers shoulder this growth by working excessive hours on precarious low pay contracts; being exposed to hazardous materials. From the mining of precious metals for circuit boards to the carcinogenic chemicals used to clean screens, technology comes at a cost.
It is easy to feel helpless as we cannot avoid using technology and currently there are very few ethical alternatives available on the market. Luckily, however, there are organisations working tirelessly to improve working conditions and respect workers’ rights, through these we can direct our support for workers. Electronics Watch is an independent worker-led monitoring organisation which supports demands for: democratic unions, better pay and improved conditions in the industry.
The mission of Electronics Watch is “to help public sector organisations work together and collaborate with civil society monitors in production regions to protect the rights of workers in their electronics supply chains.” In principle, this allows institutions who buy large quantities of technology, to collectively put pressure on the industry and increase transparency between the ‘consumer’, civil organisations and factory owners.
It would cost Sussex University £3,000 per year to affiliate with Electronics Watch. Affiliation would ensure that the manufacturing of all ICT hardware bought would be closely monitored. Affiliation with Electronics Watch would also mean directly contributing to an organisation making tangible changes to the electronics industry.
Sussex currently buys its electronics through procurement companies, none of which monitor the products in line with Electronics Watch. These companies have associations with Electronics Watch but these are in no means substitutions for individual affiliation. The University could take individual action to support the workers who make our technology through its own affiliation. Demet Dinler, a Lecturer in Social Anthropology has commented: “As a scholar researching and teaching on global supply chains and labour rights, I fully support the Sussex Sweatshop Free campaign on electronics.
Affiliation with Electronics Watch would bring greater transparency and accountability to the overall supply chain from which Sussex buys its infrastructural equipment and it would be great to see the values of social justice we aim to cultivate in class be implemented in practice on our campus. I am proud of and inspired by our students who did the research to offer evidence and raise awareness on the issue.”
Sussex Sweatshop Free campaign is associated with the student charity People & Planet, the largest student activist network campaigning to defend human rights, end world poverty and protect the environment. Recently, members of the campaign at Sussex took part in People and Planet’s ‘48 hours of Action against Samsung Union Busting’ in Library Square.
According to the International Trade Union Congress, Samsung has engaged in union busting – a practice which prevents workers in its factories from forming, joining or organising within trade unions – through sacking union members, threatening migrant workers with deportation and locking union members out of factories. In July, Samsung fired South Korean worker Yong-Hee Kim for association with trade unions who, in protest, climbed a Samsung tower and has remained there since in protest of Samsung’s repression of union organisers.
People & Planet’s Sweatshop Free Co-Ordinator, Ella Wilkinson said “Without the freedom to join a union it is practically impossible for workers to ensure they have access to adequate pay, safe working conditions and a dignified work environment. Whilst some employers may satisfy workers grievances on an individual level, it is only when workers come together that they can achieve long-term, systemic change for themselves and for others.”
Last year, Sussex Sweatshop Free co-hosted a film screening of ‘Complicit’, a documentary which showed the plight of workers who had developed leukaemia as a result of working in factories assembling smartphones, tablets and laptops in China. It followed the work of grassroots human rights organisations and workers who were in legal battles with Samsung over occupational leukaemia.
This demonstrates the wider need for trade unions as a place for workers to have a voice, especially in industries where health is on the line. Although it will take a while for the electronics industry to change completely, Sussex Sweatshop Free want the University to be part of the big steps forward that are happening as a result of worker-led monitoring through Electronics Watch.
If you would like to hear more about the campaign or get involved, find us on Facebook ‘Sussex Sweatshop Free’ or email email@example.com We usually meet every Monday at 6-7pm in Meeting room 3, Falmer House and anyone is welcome to come along. For further information please look up http://electronicswatch.org/en and www.peopleandplanet.org
Image credit: Gerd Leonhard