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High Tech, Low Pay: Let the Workers Behind Our Electronics Be Heard

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Apple may be reporting record company sales in 2011, but one thing the company is not making noise about are the details surrounding a string of recent tragedies at the Chinese factory where so much of Apple's current success story is based. The explosion in May at the Foxconn plant in the city of Chengdu in Southwestern China -- where Apple's highly coveted iPad 2 is produced -- has reignited concerns among corporate accountability activists. That explosion, which killed three workers and injured 16 others, urges us to ask once again: who are the people behind our beloved hi-tech products? And how can we "lean back" with our shiny new information devices while these electronic sweatshop workers are treated as disposable as last year's iPhone?

China's electronics industry exports approximately US $424 billion worth of electronics annually, supplying brand-name companies such as Apple, Dell, and Sony. The millions who work these factories receive wages too miniscule to ever be able to achieve an adequate standard of living. Most are also forced to work in dangerous conditions, enduring long hours and restrictions on their personal freedoms that violate fundamental international labor standards.

The explosion this year was far from an isolated incident. In 2010, at least 12 Foxconn workers took their own lives, many by leaping from the top of one of Foxconn's so-called "campus" buildings. Although this spate of suicides did prompt Foxconn to raise pay for workers, install safety nets, and hire mental health counselors, the corporate accountability organization Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) has found that the brutal working conditions continue and that the so-called increase in pay remains "far from a living wage."

The May 2011 report by SACOM found that while Foxconn workers labor an average of 174 regular hours each month, they also clock some 80 to 100 hours of overtime, without meal breaks--far above China's overtime legal limit of 36 hours. As for wages, workers in the Chengdu factory make an average of 1300 Yuan ($200.80). SACOM estimates that the cost of living in Chengdu is double that amount, or approximately 2600 Yuan ($401.62).

It is time for these workers--like so many individuals and communities around the world whose human rights are routinely abused in the name of corporate profit--to finally have their voices heard.

Take, for example, Qing Tong. At 20 years old, Qing decided to speak out about the dismal working conditions at Foxconn, where she worked to support her ailing father and two siblings. She came across a book on Chinese labor law in a library, discovered her employers' violations, and brought it to their attention. She also posted her observations on Tianya, one of China's most popular online forums. Following an enormous online response to her postings, she was offered a book deal by a Beijing publisher and went on to publish a best-selling, albeit disturbing, memoir about her time in Dongguan and Foxconn, entitled From The Wolf's Burrow into The Tiger's Den. She no longer works at the factory and her words have served as an inspiration to millions of Chinese factory workers. Qing is an example of what happens when workers are allowed to be heard.

Several courageous human rights organizations are also working to give voice to so many of Qing's co-workers who fear that speaking out will cost them their livelihood. The Chinese Working Women Network (CWWN), for example, trains factory workers on labor law and occupational health and safety and works for the long-term re-integration of rural migrant workers. Similarly, the China Labor Bulletin (CLB) uses research and advocacy to improve the enforcement of Chinese and international labor standards and improve factory conditions.

Stories like Qing's and campaigns such as these are what we at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law and the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights aim to highlight with our new, multilingual online information portal--the Business and Human Rights Documentation (B-HRD, or "Be Heard") Project.

Reports like the one noted above, combined with powerful strategies to hold companies to account, are what B-HRD hopes to encourage and empower (www.bhrd.org). B-HRD is an interactive, multi-lingual information portal that connects and informs advocates by providing an online forum to share their corporate accountability campaigns and advocacy strategies. The site features a large, searchable database of human rights documentation, latest developments in key campaigns against business-related abuse, and resource toolkits contributed by advocates and organizations from across the globe.

All too often, individuals, communities, and activists around the globe are outspent, out-maneuvered, and literally beaten down by powerful business actors. These individuals and groups receive little protection from governments, despite their obligations to guarantee a number of fundamental human rights. Yet against the toughest of odds, brave activists and coalitions persevere in monitoring companies, providing proactive solutions, winning important legal victories, and -- when governments fail to act -- enforcing human rights protection to counter-balance business abuse. B-HRD highlights these voices and provides tools and resources to the global struggle to hold companies' activities in line with basic human rights standards. There is hope for those in the electronic sweatshops of China and B-HRD hopes to provide them with tools to make this hope a reality. Log on and support their struggle.

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