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Letting Australian industry die promotes workplace slavery elsewhere

  • 26 May 2014

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