Today is International Workers’ Day, celebrated from as far afield as London, Lahore and Lebanon. And while the roots of the holiday date back to a socialist and communist movement in 1886 Chicago, the issue of workers’ rights is never far from the news today–not least in the tech industry, which, while far from the worst offender, has suffered its fair share of employment controversies in recent years.
As people march across the globe under the banners of equality, socialism and equal rights, Red Herring explores some of the technology industry’s more egregious moments. Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
1. The Foxconn Suicides
Foxconn is Taiwan’s largest private company–so when, in 2010, 18 of the electronics firm’s Shenzhen, China-based employees tried to kill themselves, the world took note. Staff were making Apple iPads and iPhones when the attempted mass suicide took place, though Foxconn was also working for Microsoft; IBM; Dell; HP; Samsung; Sony and Amazon. Nonetheless, the “Foxconn Suicides” became a shibboleth for the murky supply chains that bring so much consumer tech to the West.
Foxconn’s work conditions were quickly found to be draconian, bordering on those of a Victorian cotton mill. Employees usually worked 12-hour shifts, conversation was banned, and shifts and production targets were regularly upped by management. All about the Shenzhen factory hung slogans by rapacious Foxconn CEO Terry Gou.
“Achieve goals or the sun won’t shine,” one read.
No matter that ABC News and The Economist both reported that the number of suicides actually fell under China’s national average (Foxconn employs a staggering 1.3m people): media knives were out, and for good reason. Gou’s response was even more Scrooge-esque: make staff sign “anti-suicide pledges,” deferring responsibility for their potential deaths from Foxconn. A statement from Gou’s personal assistant–who moonlighted as the company’s chief union liaison, which read, “Suicide is foolish, irresponsible and meaningless,” did not help matters.
Enquiries were made, but ultimately little changed. Tech’s giants offered lip service but contracts were kept up, and Foxconn is due to meet US President Trump to announce American investment. Critics of the media storm point to the national suicide statistics but it is clear that working conditions at Foxconn would never be tolerated in any of its client nations. The Foxconn Suicides were a grim reminder that our fancy new gadgets do not fall from trees.
2. Congo’s Conflict Components
The Smartphone Revolution has changed our world indelibly. Today almost a third of all humans have a device–and a huge portion of the tech industry is geared towards monetizing them. But the revolution has spurred a new gold rush for rare-earth minerals like tantalum and tungsten–in addition to tin and actual gold–that has led major tech firms to nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in central Africa, whose mining industry is intertwined with decades of war, famine and disease.
So unregulated and unreported is Congo’s mining industry–which often sells raw materials to China for manufacturing–that many experts believe child labor is commonplace. Some extractions are even used by rebel groups to purchase weapons that are used to kill government troops and civilians.
Congo may be the most alarming example of the tech industry’s mining woes. But watchdogs have documented widespread child labor abuses in Myanmar, Rwanda and Bolivia. One problem is that end-user firms can rarely trace materials back to single mines. Another is that shareholders are unlikely to make dividends from fines or mine closures.
3. Tech’s Yawning Gender Gap
Tech is often hailed as a hip, liberal new industry. But the facts don’t lie: Only 7% of tech startups are led by women. Among the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, only 25 are women and 23 have an all-male boardroom. Indidents of sexual abuse and misogyny abound in Silicon Valley offices, and many female employees have blown the whistle on toxic boardroom practices that make it difficult for women to shine in tech.
Change is coming, in the shape of female-specific funds, femtech and the VERY-slowly-dying Alpha male environment that dominates so many C-suites. But it is slow, and half of tech’s workforce are not reaching their potential due to outdated behavior many hoped would die with the advent of global tech powerhouses.
A string of high-profile accusations of sexism against tech leaders such as Uber’s Travis Kalanick, Justin Mateen of Tinder and Microsoft chief Satya Nadella, don’t help fuel complaints that tech is much like other legacy industries when it comes to gender equality. The election of an openly sexist US President (who, by his own estimate, loves women more than anyone else on earth) will have done little to persuade anyone to change their ways. It will take a while yet, before tech’s glass ceiling is shattered.