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Letting Australian industry die promotes workplace slavery elsewhere


Cover of Baptist World Aid report 'Beyond the Barcode'

Apple's new Mac Pro computer was supposed to be available in the second half of last year, but unexplained production issues have delayed supplies until now. Last year, consumers wishing to purchase certain Motorola phones also had to wait.

It seems the delays could have been caused by decisions to experiment and go against trend, to manufacture the products in the USA, rather than countries such as China, where more expedient production conditions prevail. 

We variously marvel at the cost-effective manufacturing processes in these countries and express alarm at the knock on effect on manufacturing here. The federal government's lack of will to subsidise local manufacturers is built on a conviction that workers here enjoy conditions that are unsustainable and our work conditions must be downgraded to ensure local industry is more competitive with overseas counterparts. 

We enjoy record low prices on products such as electronics and clothing and marvel at what we consider the 'miracle' of modern manufacturing in China, as if it is part of God's bounty. That this is far from the case is revealed in Baptist World Aid's recently released Behind the Barcode report. It is not a gift of God but our taking advantage of the disempowerment of fellow humans in less fortunate parts of the world.

The Baptist report focuses on widespread ignorance of the conditions of the people who produce electronic consumer goods. In other words, what we don't know won't hurt our conscience. It's our lack of knowledge of the exploitation of the workers and, more significantly, the lack of interest on the part of Australian and multinational companies in knowing about the human circumstances of the manufacture of these products.

The headline findings of the report include that fact that 97% of electronics companies could not demonstrate they were paying workers enough to meet their basic needs. Only 18% of companies had even partial knowledge of where their raw materials were sourced. Also 34% of companies had a code of conduct which included workers' rights to collective bargaining, but only one company could demonstrate that there was a collective bargaining agreement in place.

Nokia, which still managed only a 'B+' grading in the study, was the only company among 39 leading technology brands able to prove it was paying its manufacturing workers a living wage above the official minimum. The study defined a living wage as enough money for food, water, shelter, clothing and a bit extra for discretionary spending or emergencies.

Other companies such as Australian retailers Kogan and Dick Smith did badly, and were not prepared to cooperate with the study by providing information about the systems of monitoring labour conditions they did have. Dick Smith instead issued a statement complaining that the study 'does not fairly represent Dick Smith's current practices' and insisting the company 'has policies in place to ensure that our supply chain meets our strong ethical and environmental standards'.

The lesson for Australian consumers wanting to be as confident as possible that they are not supporting child slave labour is that they should buy products from companies such as Nokia, who can demonstrate better than their rivals that caring about workers' conditions. This is, if you like, a feature of their products, and should take this into account when purchasing.

For its part, the Australian Government needs to less cavalier and reticent to subsidise local manufacturers, who are obliged to be transparent about their work practices and bear the costs of this. For a relatively modest outlay, it could have saved the Electrolux factory in Orange NSW, and we would have confidence that our vacuum cleaners are not being produced by slaves and sold to us at bargain prices.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Baptist World Aid, consumer electronics, slavery, Nokia, Apple, work practices



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Existing comments

I believe some manufacturing has been returned to the USA from China to considerable benefit, social and economic, to the former nation. One of the things I think we badly need in contemporary Australia is a social compact where both capital and labour realise they exist for mutual benefit. With the successful manufacturing returned to the USA I believe these two did work together to their mutual benefit. I believe there were no direct subsidies to return manufacturing to America from the federal government. The country however does have a vast internal market which we do not. The issues you raise need careful consideration and public debate. As a nation we need a clear idea of what sort of society we want. Economics should serve society: not vice versa.
Edward Fido | 26 May 2014

It's all about avarice. Same old story. The real problem is all about living within one's means. Why is the prevailing sentiment an expectation that the government should pick up the slack. We seem to have lost the ability to take responsibility for ourselves with an eye to the common good. If the Australians wanted a viable manufacturing industry then we would all buy Aussie made. Nobody really cares that we are losing the expertise or the local jobs. As for pride in a job well done, there is a new concept for the unions to push. Maybe unions could run a campaign for well made quality. Btw I will pay a bit extra for a quality product which gives hassle free service. Local dairy farms were destroyed so that milk could be transported from interstate for the lucrative Sydney market. How fresh is that product, big supermarket? This problem is no different, same old avarice.
Jane Penseur | 26 May 2014

A good illustration of the value and necessity for trade unions. The Chinese people certainly need unions if they are to receive wage for work justice. However, while the early benefits would be enormous, as they were in the Western world, the unions would eventually become greedy and corrupt and ruin manufacturing - a well trod path!
john frawley | 26 May 2014

We have also to look at environmental issues as well. We find often that countries which “take over” our jobs have very weak environmental laws and legislations. International environmental standards are often displayed on imported goods. In countries with widespread corruption, “compliance” to international standards is certainly not something which provides a lot of confidence. I think we are all facing a uncertainty. How do we deal with the issue of child labour? If a child is riding a horse helping on the parents farm then it is romantic. If a child is seeing doing any other work, then we know it is evil. With good people and good intentions, workers are treated fairly here and overseas. If a business lacks any ethics, then exploitation will occur. We see how various “training” schemes here in Australia were abused by employers. We know that many students, especially from Asia, are underpaid or “paid under the table”. I think we all should become alert when we see “cash only” signs in restaurants. Giving hundreds of Millions of Dollars to the car industry did not improve anything. Manufacturers will take the gift and move on if they can make more profits elsewhere.
Beat Odermatt | 26 May 2014

Some necessary correctives. 1. Forced child labour in agriculture or other sectors ­ was the historical norm for almost all poorer families before the advent of market capitalism. It disappeared most rapidly under countries that embraced the market such as England, the U.S., Australia, and so on. Today it exists most extensively in economies that are the least free economically ­Cuba, North Korea, and so on. 2. The BTB report cited doesn’t define slavery. It nowhere proves workers are being forced (eg at gunpoint) to work in the electronics factories. 3. In fact, far from “slavery”, workers choose these sweatshop jobs because they are usually above the average pay levels of the rest of the economy. At the very least - Cambodia, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Honduras, the average wage paid by a firm accused of being a sweatshop is more than DOUBLE the average income in that country. 4. Eliminating these so-­called “slavery” jobs does the workers no good at all. They then have to find other, lower paid work. As Paul Krugman noted once, the elimination of child factory jobs in a firm in Bangladesh resulted in many of these children being forced into prostitution. Great - thanks Western do-gooders. 5. Those with an open mind and genuine concern for the poor might like to google and read “In Defence of Sweatshops” By Benjamin Powell.
HH | 26 May 2014

Not only does letting Australian industry promote workplace slavery elsewhere, it also means supplying consumer goods to Australian markets emits much more CO2 because those goods have to be shipped from far way. In no way can this government be thought ethical.
David Arthur | 26 May 2014

If those left were sincere in their concern that companies were profiting exhorbitantly from slave labour in other countries, they could easily do something in response: they could buy shares in these companies and donate the ill-gotten fat dividends back to those hapless "slaves". The more exploitative profits, the more the slaves get back. Does anyone protesting here do something like that?
HH | 28 May 2014

Welcome to capitalism! Most Australian consumers are totally ignorant about the conditions of factory workers in places such as China, India, Bangladesh, The Phillipines and Indonesia. The reason for this ignorance is that the garbage Australian mainstream media does not provide any information to the Australian public. We also need more information concerning the return of manufacturing jobs to the U.S.A. because I heard a report on the American independent current affairs program 'Democracy Now' that manufacturing jobs in America have been transferred to privately owned prisons. I also find it bemusing that with the globalisation of the economy in the past sixty odd years, institutions such as national governments and trade unions have failed to develop policies and relationships with other countries to combat the inhumane policies of multinational companies.
Mark Doyle | 28 May 2014

Most purchase decisions are made on price,so to me it would seem that in most cases Gov. subsidy is needed to compete. The problem as I see it is as soon as there is a gov. subsidy for anything both the worker and the employer set out to exploit the situation rather than seeing it as benefit for aust.
Leo King | 30 May 2014


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