What does a laptop have in common with a cup of coffee?

With the recent increase in the public’s awareness of poor working conditions and even suicides occurring at overseas electronics factories, it may be time to re-think our high-tech manufacturing model. As it stands, the consumer electronics market is driven by a race to the bottom in terms of production cost, translating into poor wages and worker conditions.

Perhaps the fair trade model that worked for coffee could work for electronics? Although coffee and computers come from different parts of the world and seem to have little in common, they share an interesting number of parallels. The most obvious being that both are ubiquitous consumer products and they both have high-profile international brand names dominating the market. More importantly, both use cheap overseas labour to supply Western markets.

Foxconn, a manufacturer of electronic goods ranging from smart phones, to laptops, to video game consoles has been the focus of intense scrutiny due to a rash of suicides and suicide attempts. As of May 27, 2010, 13 employees have tried to kill themselves, the majority of which were successful. Although you may not be familiar with the business, chances are if it’s electronic and branded with a high-profile name, Foxconn made it.

An employee described the conditions on the Foxconn factory floor to Bloomberg Businessweek: “Conversation on the production line is forbidden, bathroom breaks are kept to 10 minutes every two hours and constant noise from the factory washes past [employees’] ear plugs, damaging [their] hearing.”

And that’s just during the work hours. After work, there is little chance to leave the compound and employees “live in white dormitories with eight to 10 people sleeping in a room.” According to the same interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, the pay for a month of work at Foxconn is about $134 CDN, which is barely enough to support a family.

Zdnet.com reports that low wages “compel workers to take on up to 100 hours of overtime a month.” The repetitive nature of the work, coupled with harsh conditions, might be the driving factor behind the suicide attempts.

It’s a shocking state of affairs when you keep in mind how much consumers are willing to pay for the products these factory workers make. In the same Zdnet article, it’s explained that Western companies are awarding contracts to the manufacturer with the lowest production cost, forcing employers to push their workers through strict rules and high production quotas.
So where does fair trade fit into this?

According to the European Observatory on Fair Trade and Public Procurement, fair trade is “a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade,” and “contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers — especially in the South.” This is done through linking businesses with democratically organized producers, shifting the decision making power back to the people.

Coffee has been available as a fair trade produced good for years, and numerous studies and impact assessments have shown the positive outcome of adopting a fair trade model.

One of the main benefits to adopting a fair trade model for electronics production would be an increase in worker’s wages and improved working conditions, just as the coffee plantation employees experienced. The Journal of International Development study performed by Alberto Arce titled “Fair Trade and the Fractured Life worlds of Guatemalan Coffee Farmers” showed workers are not just employed but taught valuable skills, thereby increasing their worth on the labour market and ensuring job security. The ensured minimum prices on coffee have provided workers with stable incomes, while a $0.05 premium paid for each pound of fair trade coffee is used to fund social programs thereby raising the quality of life for the whole community.

So, can we afford an increase in the cost of electronics? Tom Foremski of the website SiliconValleyWatcher.com sums it up nicely, “It wasn’t that long ago when PCs typically cost $5,000 and lots of people paid it willingly. These days you can pick up powerful notebooks for under $1,000 and netbooks for under $400. And a $100 smartphone is more powerful than PCs from just a few years ago.”

Because of the proliferation of technology into our daily lives, we’ve forgotten that there is a price to pay, that someone has to put gadgets together. If we’re willing to pay a few cents extra for a cup of coffee, shouldn’t we pay a few extra dollars for the latest tech trends, ensuring the people making them enjoy the same quality of life that we take for granted? Seems like a fair trade to me.