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Ethical business – tech giants assessed against slave labour practices

A new report has revealed, however, that some tech giants are making good progress in the field

In today’s increasingly transparent world, big firms are under growing pressure to reveal their supply chains and confirm that they operate according to strict, sustainable means that stamp out labour abuse – something that modern consumers are starting to wake up to and feel very strongly about. After years of witnessing child labour in the developing world, larger groups of customers are actively directing their purchasing power towards firms that can demonstrate ethical business practices.

Tech companies, however, have long argued that it is incredibly difficult for them to effectively monitor their entire supply chains and identify any potentially abusive labour practices. Modern tech products comprise hundreds of different component parts and raw materials, with each of these having their own supply chain comprising middlemen and subcontractors; for example, to even draw up a supply chain that captured everyone involved in a tablet construction would be a vast undertaking.

A new report has revealed, however, that some tech giants are making good progress in the field. Those that have shown development have flagged up a clear awareness that there is real potential for human rights abuses in manufacturing supply chains and that they understand how this manifests. The same suppliers are also putting in measurable steps to limit the likelihood of this occurring and are learning from best practice approaches where they have been shown to exist.

Non-profit group KnowTheChain assessed 20 large firms across seven indicators, including purchasing policies and recruitment, and found huge differences in approach. Amongst the most ethical business operators were huge brands such as Apple and HP, which recorded 62 and 72 out of 100 possible points respectively. The worst firms were Keyence, which managed to rack up no points at all, and Canon, which managed just 12.

The project director, Kilian Moote, said that the biggest issue tended to be around bonded labour practices, whereby migrant workers found themselves obliged to pay hefty fees to dubious recruitment agencies before finding that their wages were insufficient to meet these costs. These workers can become bonded to their employer and the recruiters sometimes confiscate their passports.

On the other hand, good practices are springing up. HP notably has a strong recruitment policy that puts it ahead of the pack, obliging its contractors to directly hire staff rather than using riskier middlemen and agencies. Equally, Cisco and Apple are both reimbursing any recruitment fees and Apple has already paid over $25m (£19m) directly to workers in respect of this since 2008.

Moote said the research showed how some progress was being made and that this had been notable over the past ten years; however, the overall, performance was still worrying low, with an average score of just 39 from the big tech firms surveyed and the recruitment indicator measuring an average of just 19 per cent good practice.

He confirmed that the next step was to see more focus on the implementation of remedial measures, building on the initial awareness and showing how progress was actually going to take place to avoid slave labour practices in the future and finally clean up the tech industry for good.

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