Shocking number of universities won’t take action on sweatshops in their supply chains

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford University
Chris Jarvis

On July 16, a new league table of universities was published. The league ranks the UK’s universities on the strength of their environmental policies and their work to uphold human rights. It’s produced by student campaign group People & Planet.

One of its sections focuses on workers’ rights. And its findings don’t reflect well on the UK’s universities. They suggest many universities are failing to take action to defend the rights of workers in their supply chains.

Two-thirds of universities not taking action

People and Planet gave over a third of UK universities no marks for improving workers’ rights in supply chains. No marks are given to universities that are currently not working with labour monitoring organisation Electronics Watch.

Electronics Watch works with large public sector buyers of electronics to improve workers’ rights in their supply chains. It does this by investigating factories. It also uses the leverage of large buyers to pressure electronics brands to improve standards. People & Planet argues that without working with Electronics Watch, universities aren’t able to implement policies to improve workers’ rights.

In People & Planet’s university league table, 57 universities received no marks. This means that over a third of the UK’s 154 universities are risking workers’ rights abuses – including sweatshops – operating freely in their supply chains.

A further 46 universities aren’t taking action directly themselves. Instead, they are a member of a purchasing consortium which is a member of Electronics Watch. Purchasing consortia manage big purchases on behalf of their members.

But People & Planet has highlighted how electronics purchased by these universities are not monitored for labour rights abuses. This leaves these universities open to the same problems as those that were given no marks.

This means 103 UK universities could have workers’ rights abuses in their supply chains. It also means they aren’t taking action to prevent them. That’s two in every three universities.

Why universities’ failures are a big deal

The electronics industry is known for widespread workers’ rights abuses. So these numbers matter.

A recent report from Danwatch found forced labour and violent intimidation of migrant workers in Malaysia. Electronics Watch’s own investigations revealed highly abusive practices in the supply chains of European public sector organisations. This includes student intern labour in China, forced labour in Thailand, and frequent 12-hour shifts in the Czech Republic. And Electronics Watch also recently claimed employment practices in China contribute to workers’ suicides.

So by failing to take action on workers’ rights abuses, universities risk these kinds of abuses being present in their supply chains.

People & Planet’s workers’ rights campaign coordinator Lucy Auger told The Canary that universities joining Electronics Watch is key to solving this:

Universities spend thousands on ICT products each year. This puts them in a key position to take action on worker rights abuses on ICT supply chains.

Brands like Samsung are cracking down on workers’ rights at every level, including through their ‘no-union policy’ which prevents factory workers organising for better conditions.

The key step all public universities can take to tackle workers rights abuses in the electronics industry is affiliating to Electronics Watch.

By affiliating to Electronics Watch, universities can play a vital role in empowering electronics factory workers to organise for fair pay and conditions.

Wider failures

This isn’t the only way that universities are failing workers. People & Planet also highlights failures in other areas.

People & Planet’s research found just 39 universities that are Living Wage employers. These universities ensure that all workers are paid at least £9 an hour, or £10.55 if in London. The Living Wage Foundation says this is the minimum needed to meet a basic standard of living. This means the remaining 115 universities aren’t currently paying their workers enough to meet that standard.

People & Planet also found just one university – SOAS – has a publicly available policy ensuring outsourced workers must receive the same pay, terms, pensions, and conditions as directly employed workers. Universities which don’t guarantee this are therefore potentially exploiting outsourcing as a means to drive down labour standards.

Universities have a responsibility to ensure their practices don’t harm workers. Right now, too many are failing in that responsibility. It’s time for them to change this.

Featured image via Maupertius – Wikimedia Commons

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  • Show Comments
    1. Just wondering why you use an iconic photo of Oxford to head this article. Oxford university might not do that well overall, but is certainly not at the bottom of the league. Furthermore on the question of workers’ rights, they score a good deal better than several of those in the top part of the table.

      Might there be a certain laziness around using a photo which evinces the word “university”, rather than taking a bit more trouble?

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