– By Ruth Walters

Sweatshop Free Sussex, a student led campaign group, is pleased to announce that the University of Sussex is now affiliated with Electronics Watch! This was one of the campaign’s core goals and was a focus for nearly 2 years. 

Electronics Watch is an independent monitoring organisation which uses a worker led monitoring model to increase transparency in the production of electronic goods purchased by public buyers (such as universities). Electronics Watch brings public buyers together to use their leverage and put pressure on the electronics industry to improve, whilst also encouraging public procurers to be more accountable for their purchasing choices. 

By becoming an affiliate, Sussex is joining a network of public buyers who care about the conditions the electronics they buy are made in and acknowledge the stake they have in the industry. Sussex will receive, and have access to, reports from organisations in production regions who carry out ongoing, worker led monitoring in factories which produce brands bought by Sussex. If workers’ rights abuses are reported, Sussex can push Electronics Watch to further investigate these and can directly relay their condemnation of any reported abuses to the producers.

 They will also have access to platforms and training sessions about socially responsible public procurement and the important role public buyers play in the electronics industry. In order to affiliate, Sussex paid £3,000, agreed to submitting a list of products and suppliers used, agreed to implementing Electronics Watch’s (or a similar) code of conduct and provided a point of contact. 

Martha Knott, a member of the campaign, said “I’m so excited that Sussex has affiliated to Electronics Watch. After two years of hard work, organisation, discussions, meetings, and action, it’s so rewarding to see that we can make a difference when we come together as a group. This affiliation means that Sussex are joining other universities in taking a step forward for workers’ rights and taking responsibility for their role in the global electronics supply chains!”

Electronic goods that we rely on contain raw minerals, some referred to as ‘conflict minerals’ as they originate from conflict zones and sometimes even perpetuate conflict. This mining is generally unsafe and many reports indicate that child exploitation is rife. Electronics Watch is working on a project with other organisations to try and improve the mining stage of the supply chain. 

However, within the manufacturing stage, workers’ rights abuses are also common. Workers are often faced with forced overtime, excessive working hours with no toilet breaks, and no access to labour unions and exposure to toxic chemicals. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and forced labour. Electronics Watch work with partner organisations in production regions to monitor factories on an ongoing basis. This contrasts with the common auditing model for factories whereby boxes are ticked and only surface level, visible working conditions are monitored for a short period of time. Sussex will therefore receive much richer, detailed reports about where their electronics are made. 

Driven by a knowledge of the industry and concern of the practices, a group of students started the Sussex Sweatshop Free campaign in 2018 to persuade the University to become a member of Electronics Watch. We recognise that large consumers, such as universities, have a lot of leverage in demanding changes in the industry and that Electronics Watch enables this leverage to be used.    

Sweatshop Free is a national campaign run by People and Planet, the largest student campaign network in the UK. With their support and guidance, Sussex Sweatshop Free was formed and grew in numbers and power. During the campaign, the group have spoken to key people in University management about Electronics Watch and pushed for answers as to why they hadn’t already affiliated. We attended meetings to discuss the issue and sent many emails. 

The other strand of the campaign has been to raise awareness of the electronics industry which we have done by having stands at Library Square as part of People & Planet’s 48 Hours of Action Against Samsung Union-Busting. As part of this we were raising awareness of Samsung’s repressive policies, gathering signatures for a petition and spreading the word about the campaign.

Over the last few months you may have also noticed post it notes with a stamped message of ‘Support the workers who made this Tech, Sussex Sweatshop Free’ on computers around campus and posters with similar messages. We put these up to encourage everyone to think about where and how their technology is made and also to advertise the campaign. 

Sussex Sweatshop Free would like to thank the University of Sussex for affiliating to Electronics Watch, and we hope they fully engage with their affiliation and utilise their market leverage by responding to reports. We would also like to thank People and Planet, the SU and all staff and students who have supported the campaign along the way.

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