Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Are Cheap Computer Peripherals Worth it?

This isn't a post with a link to reviews of inexpensive brands of mice, keyboards, and webcams.

This goes beyond computer peripherals themselves. This is about the people who make those products and the conditions they work in. The peripherals are peripheral so to speak.

This is about working conditions overseas in the places that make our mice, keyboards, and webcams. China's Youth Meet Microsoft is a damning report by the National Labor Committee. Don't think it will be a hard read because it's filled with numbers and statistics. The report shows explains the daily life of a group of workers and the conditions in which they work. It's a hard read because of what it exposes, because of what is being done so that the things we buy cost less. And this is in a company that's making hi-tech goods for hi-tech companies. This isn't a sweat shop making no-name clothes or shoes.

I've never been a big fan of unions. In many cases they fall into the trap of the Shirky Principle:
Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution. - Clay Shirky
But regardless of my views on unions I have no issue with the fundamental cause of workers' rights. Fair wages. Fair working conditions. Fair treatment. All entrenched in laws that are enforced.

We can argue over what constitutes fair and what should be in the legislation but we'll be fighting over details and not over whether workers should have rights. We can disagree over whether our particular country has better laws than another but at least the laws are in place and our companies adhere to them.

If they don't adhere to them we know something can be done about it.

Around the world the story is different. Some countries don't have fair legislation to protect workers. Some don't enforce the laws they have. Companies from countries with workers' rights in place do business in countries that don't have these rights in place. Production is outsourced around the world. Factories get built around the world wherever the costs are lowest.

Is a company legally responsible for the state of workers in countries it outsources to? Is Microsoft, to use the example detailed in the report, legally responsible for what KYE Systems Corp. does?

Legal obligations in cases like these may be murky. The ethical and moral obligations are much clearer.

The only weapon available is bad publicity. Nike is going to continue to do everything they can to make sure no one can ever again jokingly say that their slogan is "For kids - by kids". Publicity works.

Now it's the turn of some of electronic giants to be shamed into doing what's right regardless of legal obligations. Sooner or later the companies involved will make sure this stops happening. Especially if the issue continues to be publicized.

Will we do our part and be willing to pay a little more for products that don't come from factories with pre-Victorian working conditions? Or will we turn a blind eye and always buy the cheapest brand with no regard to the people who make the products?

1 comment:

Janet said...

Will we see sweat-shop-free mice like we do t-shirts? or Fair Trade Coffee?