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The Slave Laborers Behind Your Computer

Did slave labor help build your computer or smartphone? There’s a strong possibility.

The Slave Laborers Behind Your Computer
[Top Photo: Flickr user Yutaka Tsutano]

Malaysia is one of the hubs of the global electronic industry. By some estimates, the Asian country is one of the 10 largest electronic exporters in the world. The country sends billions of dollars in electronic parts to the United States, China, Japan, Canada, and other global powers annually. And according a new U.S. Labor Department-funded survey, approximately one-third of Malaysian electronics workers are forced laborers.

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Verite, a supply chain-monitoring organization, just released a new report claiming that 28% of the Malaysian electronics workers they interviewed are in what they euphemistically call “situations of forced labor.” For foreign workers, the number jumps to 32%. Malaysia is a popular producer for electronic components that are later assembled into computer electronics by major brand names globally.

Flickr user Yutaka Tsutano

For the study, 501 electronics workers across Malaysia were interviewed by 12 fieldworkers, with funding partially provided by the Labor Department. The country’s booming tech industry employs hundreds of thousands of migrants from poorer nearby nations like Myanmar and Nepal, who have few rights and are subject to mass exploitation. Electronics producers routinely use domestic outsourcing firms to hire factory workers; this minimizes the legal relationships the electronics producers themselves have to their employees.

Verite’s research found that in addition to 28% of laborers being in forced labor conditions, another 46% were on the verge of one. Many Malaysian electronics workers were subject to the same sort of exploitation that foreign migrants encountered, according to the report. Conditions of forced labor included having passports taken away, being lied to about the conditions of their employment contract, and being put into debt indefinitely to their employer or to labor recruiters. Others reported being grossly misled about their job requirements, being subject to physical or sexual violence on the job, or having relatives in their home countries threatened.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t limited to Malaysian factories. Slavery, forced labor, and human trafficking are so common in the electronics supply chain that the state of California introduced new legislation in 2010 punishing manufacturers who knowingly use slaves or unfree labor in their supply chains.