ETHICS n RISK ASSESSMENT
Ethics and International Suppliers
Working Conditions in Third-World Nations
BY JEFF THROCKMORTON
How far can industrial hygienists extend an ethical presence
into the international marketplace? What can we ask of international suppliers—not on-site multinationals who have the resources to run the best programs possible at their facilities, but
those who provide support to international operations?
Fortunately, for workers who labor in many manufacturing
facilities worldwide, the ethical issues surrounding international
suppliers are becoming more visible. Recent media accounts
highlight the magnitude of the problem. For example, the Associated Press noted in 2008 that a Nike corporate responsibility
report focused entirely on China identified problems including “inadequate management, excessive overtime and workers
using false documents to get jobs.” One Nike spokesman said
that the problem was not isolated to China but “consistent with
the problems we face globally.”1
Another recent example concerns Foxconn, which manufactures and assembles iPhones and iPads for Apple. Financial
Sense reported in January 2012 that many of Foxconn’s 230,000
employees worked up to 12 hours a day, six days a week; that
over a quarter live in company barracks; and that many earn less
than $17 a day. When Apple demanded a critical iPhone revamp
just weeks before the device was due on shelves,
a foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the
company’s dormitories…. Each employee was given a biscuit
and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an
hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled
frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000
iPhones a day.2
Other articles note that nets have been installed on many
buildings to cut down on fatalities from workers attempting to
jump to their deaths.
This article is not a rant against Nike or Apple. Nor is Foxconn
unique in its policies towards workers; according to The New
York Times, companies with troubling supply systems include
Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lenovo, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, and
3 And the issue is certainly not restricted to China, or to
the electronics industry: hundreds of articles available online discuss extremely poor working conditions in third-world countries.
A number of people who practice industrial hygiene interna-
tionally spoke with me about these issues. Following is a com-
pilation of their suggestions:
•;Recognize that things are slowly improving but only because
of awareness and the desire to continually move things for-
ward. Constructive engagement is necessary. Savvy compa-
nies value their reputation and will work to protect it.
•;Some multinational companies are more sensitive to working conditions than others. The call is for all multinationals
to give this issue adequate consideration.
•;Without leverage, we have no control and there will be no
progress. It is critical for contracts to require suppliers to
have a progressive and adequate health and safety program.
•;An effective audit program with contractual enforceability
is also necessary. I was told of situations where suppliers
will literally do anything to get the business, with no one
the wiser if audit procedures are not followed.
These suggestions do not provide all of the answers. They
represent a starting point for practicing IHs who do international work. We have an ethical responsibility to promote constant improvement in the conditions under which workers in
developing countries labor.
I believe we can make a tremendous difference. The problem
is huge, but our profession is dedicated to bettering others. And
we must never lose sight of that fact.
Jeff Throckmorton, MSPH, CIH, is senior industrial hygienist at the University of
Utah in Salt Lake City. He can be reached at (801) 581-8805 or jeff.throckmorton
1. Associated Press: “Nike says Chinese labor issues
persist,” March 13, 2008.
2. Denninger, Karl: “Apple (and America’s) Chinese Slave
Labor Problem.” Financial Sense, Jan. 23, 2012.
3. Duhigg, Charles, and David Barboza: “In China,
Human Costs are Built Into an iPad.” New York Times,
Jan. 25, 2012.