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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014
Commentary

Christmas gadgets and modern-day slavery


Published:

As they compete to get Christmas shoppers the newest tablets, phones and cameras, electronics makers contract with suppliers, factories and labor recruiters across the globe.

For consumers, this means a bonanza of ever-cheaper, more convenient gadgets. At the opposite end of the supply chain, however, are people whose lives are often made worse by the game. A Bloomberg News investigation underscores how common it is that workers who make these products become indentured servants, only a step removed from slavery. Their plight results from the way employment recruiters in the poorest of countries charge steep fees to people who want to migrate to jobs in overseas manufacturing hubs. The workers are thus saddled with debt that they must work for many months or years to pay off.

To help stamp out this practice, the U.S. government has proposed new rules that would prohibit the charging of recruitment fees for any work it contracts. Because the U.S. government is the world’s largest purchaser of goods and services, this change could help root out the practice — but only if the U.S. punishes companies that violate the rules.

The Electronic Industry Citizen Coalition’s code of conduct already forbids charging workers “excessive” recruitment fees — but doesn’t say what that means. Companies assume it’s any amount exceeding the maximum established by a worker’s home or host country — for instance, the $800 Nepal sets for Malaysia-bound workers. Yet 80 percent of 60 Nepalese who had worked in Malaysia and were interviewed by Bloomberg News said they were charged more. Apple limits fees to one month’s salary. But last year, when the company audited just some of the factories in which migrant workers made its products, it discovered $6.4 million in fees beyond the ceiling.

One reason workers end up paying more than the limit is that one charge leads to another. Recruiters might impose an initial fee within industry norms, then they, or brokers who come into play later, will spring additional charges on the worker for such things as processing, immigration, training and transportation. Having borrowed money or sunk their life savings into the first fee, workers keep paying, desperate to recoup their losses, even if it means turning to loan sharks.

Even though the new rules place the onus on companies to abolish charging fees, government investigators will still have to look for human trafficking connected with procurement processes. They will need the resources it takes to vigorously pursue cases.

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