The era of uneducated consumers is coming to an end. Modern shoppers use the internet more than ever before to research, not only the products they plan to buy, but also where those products come from, who makes them, and if they’re made humanely. Also on the rise are alarming news reports and rumors that prominent foreign manufacturers use forced labor to produce a variety of goods, including computers, for American markets.
The presence of forced labor in the computer and electronics industry promises to have a negative impact on buyers. Businesses and suppliers alike must therefore take preemptive action to rid their supply chains of forced labor, or face irreversible damage to their consumer base.
After drone footage from 2019 exposed that Muslim Uighurs in China were being detained in re-education camps by the state, a spotlight was placed not only on China, but on the computer and electronics industry itself. A report from ABC News (Australia) in 2020 indicates the likes of Apple, Huawei, Samsung, and Sony utilizing Uighur forced labor for their products. PCMag reported that Lenovo had imported 258,000 laptops from China just prior to a U.S. ban on one of its technology partners for utilizing forced labor.
The partner was Hefei Bitland Information Technology Co., Ltd. It was banned for manufacturing computer parts using forced labor in the Xinjiang region of China. The DHS press release about the ban reads as follows:
“Hefei Bitland uses both prison and forced labor to produce electronics. CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] identified forced labor indicators including abuse of vulnerability, restriction of movement, isolation, and intimidation and threats.”
With such a renewed focus on forced labor in technology, companies that use overseas supply chains should be wary. They should also start taking action to prevent forced labor from entering their supply chains. It is 2021, and human trafficking and forced labor is not a good look for your brand.
Preventing human trafficking was a focus of the Trump administration, and this priority is apparently being carried on by the Biden administration. The question now remains: how long will it be before consumers reject goods made by forced labor, using the power of the purse?
Up-and-coming brands such as Falcon Northwest, based in Medford, Oregon, offer a promising future for American-made computers. Falcon has been around for 29 years and makes custom laptop and desktop computers, mostly for personal and office use, but it also boasts clients such as the Smithsonian Institution, General Dynamics, HBO, and the U.S. Army.
Falcon’s 15.6” TLX laptop starts at a hefty $2,988, but is ready to handle powerful virtual reality programs. While overpriced compared to similar products from Apple and Dell, it offers what some consider to be the most crucial stamp: “Made in USA” (meaning made in a country that has OSHA, labor unions, worker rights, and child labor laws).
In addition, 53% of surveyed consumers are willing to pay more for a product that isn’t tainted by forced labor. Eventually, this fact will come home to roost to the detriment of companies that rely on supply chains containing forced labor.
The American Bar Association warned its readers in 2016 that regulations and awareness about forced labor in corporate supply chains would grow. ABA urged executives across the country to take a risk-based approach that goes beyond legal requirements to detect and prevent forced labor from entering their supply chains. It pointed out that powerful brands such as Victoria’s Secret, The Hershey Company, Zara SA and Walmart Inc. all suffered reputational damage or litigation after forced labor was discovered in their manufacturing processes.
Therefore, the time to act — and protect your business and employees from the negative effects of forced labor discovery — is now.
Some companies such as Dell, Inc. have already taken proactive steps to ensure that its manufacturing partners and supply chains are free of forced labor. In its Statement Against Slavery and Human Trafficking, Dell says it uses audits, worker interviews, employee training, and suspendable contracts with suppliers in order to ensure adherence to human rights standards. Its supply-chain managers are trained by the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA) about human trafficking. The managers then train foreign suppliers on recruitment best practices, as well as how to recognize potential signs of slavery. Dell senior vice president Robert Potts says the company has worked with a “civil society organization” to provide training about recruitment fees to supplier factories in Taiwan.
In addition to resolute statements against forced labor, Dell also dedicates a portion of its corporate website to human rights initiatives. It even provides a virtual tour of Dell factories in China, which are audited every two years and whose 190,000 workers are part of a “weekly working hours program” to monitor compliance.
Even if you’re not a large corporation like Dell, there are still practical tools available to help. The free Responsible Sourcing Tool helps visualize how human trafficking could enter your supply chain. It’s the result of collaboration between the U.S. State Department and NGOs dedicated to preventing forced labor.
Another tool, provided by the Bureau of International Labor Affairs, is the virtual List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. Users of this tool know that China recruits 13-year-olds to work in electronics factories in Guangdong Province. Malaysia is also on the offenders’ list for electronics. And ruthless militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are in charge of mining operations for important minerals used to make computers. In addition to the list, the Bureau offers a free app for companies and their employees called Comply Chain as an aid to developing “robust social compliance systems” for global production.
Corporations with the necessary budget can hire a nonprofit like Verité for consulting or training of supply managers and auditors. Its Ethical Recruitment Auditor Training helps offshore supply-chain managers recognize signs of human trafficking, by simulating a site investigation of forced-labor indicators, including documents review and “live” interviews of migrant workers, employers and labor agents.”
The bottom line is that even though many consumers are still indifferent toward the presence of forced labor in the supply chains of their daily products, it might not always be that way. Americans are accustomed to learning that their clothes or fabrics have sometimes “accidentally” been made using forced labor. But what about their technology products — the things they associate with freedom, progress, and a better future? Few Americans will believe that sophisticated products like laptops, cameras, keyboards, and circuits are made with forced labor by accident.
Some say the brand makes the business. Don’t be one of the companies that has to explain to its customers why it was so irresponsible that it didn’t know it used forced labor to make its goods. Or, even worse, one that tells its customers it knew it used forced labor but did nothing to stop it. You’ll receive an unexpected reaction that will permanently damage your brand, and the very foundation of your business itself.
Antonios Bokas writes and edits the web journal Smooth Analyst.
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