ICT workers should not be exposed to hazardous chemicals

REPORT | 26 June 2020

As electronics manufacturing has been widely outsourced to Asia in recent decades, so has exposure to hazardous chemicals – to countries with weaker rights for workers. In the Philippines women are exposed to these chemicals and suffer from serious health impacts including miscarriages and cancers. In a new report, Swedwatch calls on tech companies to ensure workers are not exposed to hazards.

The global market for devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops is huge. The European Union alone imports electronic products worth hundreds of billions of euros every year.

These products are designed and sold by major global corporations whose brands are well-known on the European market and throughout the world. But workers who manufacture these goods, or the components that they are made from, are at risk of a wide range of human rights impacts, including the harmful effects of chemicals used in the manufacturing process. Many of these, predominantly female, workers are falling victim to crippling and deadly occupational illnesses.

All companies involved, both those manufacturing the products and those supplying them to European consumers, have a responsibility to respect human rights throughout their operations. But despite well-documented impacts of the production of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) products, Swedwatch research reveals that the issues related to exposure to hazardous chemicals are not being sufficiently addressed.

The health risks connected to ICT manufacturing of products have been widely known since the 1980s, in the early years of the industry, when it was first reported that workers in Silicon Valley suffered serious health effects linked to chemical exposure. Although these impacts on workers’ human rights and health in the ICT manufacturing industry have been well-documented for many years, exposure to hazardous chemicals remains a major issue.

Miscarriages and cancers not unusual

In the Swedwatch report Toxic Tech, female factory workers speak of dire working conditions at Filipino factories supplying global markets with components for ICT products. The women work 12-hour shifts, six days a week in poorly ventilated rooms where they handle hazardous chemicals without appropriate protective equipment and safety instructions.

They describe working with nothing but thin cloth masks and surgical gloves. Many complain of dizziness, headaches and chest pains caused by fumes. One worker reports that the chemicals are so strong that her gloves regularly melted on her hands. Workers also state that miscarriages and cancers are not unusual. According to the research, laws in place to protect the workers from exposure to chemicals, and to allow them to refuse dangerous work, are not enforced.

ICT products have long and complex supply chains. Nevertheless, companies sourcing components from the Philippines or selling products to end customers are linked to these human rights impact through their business relationships. No company sourcing devices and/or components from such a high-risk context can reasonably claim ignorance of the facts, be it regarding the risks inherent in exposure to hazardous chemicals or the human rights situation. Exporting lethal hazards along with production must never be an acceptable business practice.

Acting in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), companies should immediately initiate human rights due diligence (HRDD) to identify and assess the actual and potential human rights impacts they are linked to through their business relationships with suppliers and sub-suppliers in the Philippines.

Swedwatch calls on companies sourcing ICT components and products from the Philippines, and elsewhere, to ensure that workers are not exposed to hazardous chemicals and that their right to be informed of workplace risks is respected. Informing workers about the chemicals, their potential health impacts and necessary safety requirements is crucial to preventing harm.

This report is part of an EU-wide campaign, Make ICT Fair, which aims to raise awareness of how people and the environment are affected by electronics manufacturing and to improve working and living conditions of workers and local communities along the supply chain. It is financed by the EU and partly by SIDA.