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Learning about Electronics

August 28, 2009

By Miriam Lara-Meloy, Hesperian Writer/Researcher

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to participate in the International Conference on Labor, Occupational, and Environmental Standards in Electronics Industries in Suzhou, China. Organized by Hesperian partner the Asia Monitor Resource Center (AMRC) based in Hong Kong, and the Suzhou University Kenneth Wang School of Law, this conference brought together activists, organizers, lawyers, occupational hygienists, and specialists to learn and share information and experiences about the current working conditions in electronics factories in Asia.

Sharing their stories and struggles at the conference were groups like SHARPS, the Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in Semiconductor Industries, which is part of Korean Institute of Labor Safety and Health (KILSH). They told us about the high incidence of cancer in chip manufacturing companies in Korea (mainly Samsung) and about many young workers experiencing chronic and spontaneous nose-bleedings, chronic headaches, various skin diseases, musculoskeletal pain and disorders, menstrual irregularities and miscarriages. Laura Sarmiento from the Workers Assistance Center talked about the unspoken government and business policy of “No Union, No Strike” in the Philippines and how employers circumvent workers rights by only hiring contractual workers. Richard Gutierrez from BAN Toxics in the Philippines described the skin rashes, sores, and chemical burns that workers endure in the electronics factories while employers refuse to supply them with protective gear, training, or safer working conditions that would minimize exposure. We learned about the struggle of workers in the Taiwanese WINTEK company (which makes flat-screen monitors and panels for Apple), who are protesting the unfair dismissal of 600 employees in December of last year and the subsequent salary cuts and forced overtime for the remaining workers. Kevin Li from Globalization Monitor told us about the cadmium poisioning workers have suffered, and continue to endure, from working in Gold Peak battery factories in Hong Hong and China.

The meeting culminated in the creation of a Working Group on Environment, Health and Safety of Workers in Electronics Industries, an international solidarity network that promotes corporate and government accountability in the global electronics industry, united by concern about the impacts of this industry on health, the environment, and workers’ rights.

This conference was a great opportunity to hear about the reality of worker’s experiences in the electronics industry, and to make connections with these brave groups fighting for worker’s rights. These partners will be invaluable as we continue to develop our book-in-progress A Worker’s Guide to Health and SafetyA Workers Guide to Health and Safety will present the physical and social dangers of working in factories all around the world in an easy-to-understand format, including information about the electronics, garment, shoe, and light assembly industries. It will incorporate solutions, ideas, and stories from workers groups, such as the groups we met during this conference, that have fought and won (and sometimes lost) struggles to help workers achieve better working conditions. We have finished a section of the book on work dangers in the garment industry, which you can download for free from our downloads page