Leaders from 15 countries/regions meet in Korea
to plan strategy for sustainable electronics
Leaders from throughout Asia, North America and Europe have come to Korea to develop an action plan to promote more a more sustainable, accountable and responsible electronics industry. Inspired by the courageous struggles of the Samsung workers and their families (through the organizing efforts of SHARPS), participants are committed to forging new strategies that will result in significantly improved worker rights and environmental justice throughout the global electronics industry. The meeting – which is a celebration of ICRT’s 10th anniversary as well as a planning meeting to improve coordination, capacity building and joint strategy development - is sponsored by Asia Monitor Resource Center (AMRC), Center for the Environment, Taiwan (CET), GoodElectronics, International Campaign for Responsible Technology (ICRT) and Supporters for Health and Rights of People in Semiconductor Industry (SHARPS).
Participants are all engaged in activities that are challenging electronics companies to improve workers’ rights and occupational and environmental health programs and agree that there are great opportunities to build a more powerful movement to transform the electronics industry into a more sustainable, greener, more just industry:
- Public awareness of the environmental and occupational health and workers’ rights abuses are much higher than ever before
- Growing participation of diverse groups around the world brings great potential to coordinate and build a more powerful movement that is capable of bringing significant changes throughout the lifecycle of the industry
- The emergence of significant new forces – especially the exemplary work of SHARPS to identify and bring public awareness to the cancer cluster at Samsung and the resistance of the company and the Korean government to acknowledge and correct these problems – has helped to increase awareness and activate more people throughout the world to work to transform the industry.
- The escalating labor and environmental protests and the emergence of groups in China that focus on labor standards - such as the global movement focused on Apple and Foxconn – present significant opportunities to build the global movement for sustainable electronics.
There are also considerable challenges that need to be addressed in a systematic way more than ever:
- There is significant need to better coordinate all of the different groups and initiatives to exchange information and experiences, create synergies, minimize duplication, fill in the gaps, maximize the overall impact, and to identify common strategies and campaigns. Participants are committed to develop a long-range plan to consolidate our resources and to do joint campaign planning.
- While the industry has consolidated its global coordination through EICC and GESI, the NGOs and labor groups are still dispersed and uncoordinated
- The industry continues to grow in its global dominance and economic power while the resources available to the grass roots groups are comparatively small. Participants are committed to develop new resources in order to be successful.
Background: The Grassroots Global response to Electronics Hazards
By the dawn of the 21st century, most electronics manufacturing had moved to Asia and other low-cost areas of the world, bringing with it the same sets of environmental and occupational health concerns as well as workers’ rights struggles that had been discovered in the US and Europe but which were at that point unknown in the new regions. Soon activists in the developing world began to encounter and uncover occupational health hazards and environmental pollution associated with the latest round of rapid expansion. Global networks of activists began to emerge to address the hidden hazards of high-tech development and they are now working to develop comprehensive, holistic and coordinated strategies to bring accountability to and promote sustainability within the global electronics industry. Included within these networks are groups that focus on workers’ rights, occupational health and safety, environmental pollution, and hazardous waste prevention and environmental clean-up.
As workers and communities outside of Silicon Valley began to discover this ‘dark side of the chip’, they also began to come together to confront its ‘clean’ image. Community and worker based movements began to emerge in other countries - PHASE II in Scotland, Asia Monitor Resource Centre in Hong Kong, TAVOI and TEAN in Taiwan, CEREAL in Mexico, Workers Assistance Center in Philippines, SHARPS in Korea, etc. as the grassroots efforts began to grow into a global movement. Many of these groups are now working together internationally through various networks to develop worker training on occupational health and safety, to clean up and prevent air and water pollution, to press the electronics industry to phase out use of the most toxic chemicals, and to advocate for a safer, healthier and more just workplace for production workers. The publication of “Exporting Harm” in 2002 led to significantly more attention to the hazards associated with the export of e-waste to the developing world, especially China, India and Africa.
As the pace of corporate-led globalization accelerated, grass roots activists realized that they too needed to develop a robust grassroots global response. That is why many of these groups came together with the International Campaign for Responsible Technology to convene the first Global Symposium on Strategies for a Sustainable High-Tech Industry, in 2002, in San Jose, California. Participants came together to address several related issues, such as:
- Rising community and workers’ health problems.
- Deteriorating workers’ rights.
- Increasing water and air pollution.
- Growing crisis of electronic waste.
An action plan was developed that included a commitment by participants to pool their experiences into a new book, which became ‘Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry’, published in 2006. Contributors to this pioneering volume include many of the world’s most articulate, passionate and progressive visionaries, scholars and advocates. Here they not only document the unsustainable and often devastating practices of the global electronics industry but also chronicle creative ways in which activists, government agencies and others have attempted to reform the industry -- through resistance, persuasion, and regulation.
Since the book’s publication there have been many additional efforts by NGOs to move ahead with a “labor rights and environmental justice” agenda for electronics workers and communities:
- ANROEV - the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational & Environmental Victims - has increased its focus on electronics workers’ health and safety and has included panels and workshops at its last several annual meetings.
- The European Work Hazards Network has also included electronics health and safety workshops at its conferences
- The national Committees on Occupational Safety and Health Network (COSH) in the United States has also prioritized health and safety in electronics
- Good Electronics is an important network based in Europe that focuses on working conditions in electronics. An allied network named Make IT Fair has emerged that also focuses on “ethical” production practices
There is also growing interest in China, Korea and India, countries with the most rapid high-tech growth and consequently with the most at stake in terms of workers’ rights, worker and community health, and electronic waste impacts:
- Following the publication of Challenging the Chip there were forums held in Bangalore and Kerala, India, organised by Asia Monitor Resource Centre, Waste Not Asia, and other labor and grassroots groups.
- Likewise, a book tour was arranged in China by Greenpeace which energized large groups of students and others at several campuses in south China and in Beijing.
- New organizations such as SHARPS in Korea, and Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) in China emerged to focus attention on the occupational health of semiconductor workers (SHARPS) and the environmental pollution caused by the rapid growth of contract manufacturers in China (IPE).
- And when the news of the rash of suicides at Foxconn – the world’s largest electronics assembly company – were discovered, Asian NGOs such as SACOM helped to research and publicize the terrible working conditions and link them to the major brands such as Apple.
- New Occupational health NGOs emerging throughout China, and a new collaborative academic institute is in place at Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou to focus on labor standards in China.
- Further, the emergence of the dazzling Internet videos The Story of Stuff and The Story of Electronics has informed and excited millions of activists around the globe.
- Another important development is the emergence of a new focus within the UN Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) with its initiative on the “Hazard substances within the lifecycle of electronics” which identifies the 3 key aspects that need attention: design, production and end of life. ICRT worked with IPEN and many NGOs from around the world to participate in the development of many compelling and visionary proposals and these will be decided upon at the ICCM3 meeting in Kenya in October.
- Many occupational and environmental health experts from the US and Asia are planning presentations at the American Public Health Association annual meeting in San Francisco in October 2012.
- There has been a significant increase in awareness of the serious workplace issues throughout the electronics supply chain, particularly following a prominent series in the New York Times. Activists from around the world are now working together with organizations who have addressed similar working conditions in the apparel industry, such as USAS, WRC, etc.