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21 January 2021

Electronics Watch´s comment on Swedwatch's report Hazardous chemicals in ICT manufacturing and the impacts on female workers in the Philippines.

In this report Swedwatch shines a necessary spotlight on an endemic problem in the electronics industry: the health risks to workers in electronics manufacturing from toxic chemicals. Workers—at all tiers of the supply chain—handle toxic chemicals, such as solvents, adhesives, resins and etchants that can cause illness and even death after prolonged exposure with inadequate industrial hygiene.
The Electronics Watch Guidance for public buyers on How to Protect Workers from Chemical Hazards in Electronics Supply Chains proposes a two-fold strategy that reflect several Swedwatch recommendations. First, we suggest 12 chemicals that should be immediately discontinued in favour of safer alternatives and an additional 16 chemicals that may have no feasible alternatives in certain applications but should be used with caution, that is, with adequate industrial hygiene measures.

Over time, this list will inevitably change as additional chemicals are introduced or more information comes to light on existing chemicals. As Swedwatch advocates it is important that such a list be gender sensitive. A large portion of the electronics production workforce are women of childbearing age. But occupational exposure limits rarely account for the heightened vulnerability of pregnant women. A developing foetus is especially vulnerable to toxic chemical harm secondary to the mother’s exposure even if she experiences no apparent adverse impact.

It is also important that the same standards apply everywhere. What is toxic for workers in Europe and North America is also toxic to workers in the Philippines. Likewise, what is toxic to consumers is toxic to workers. Yet, occupational exposure limits are routinely less health protective than environmental exposure limits designed for consumers.

Thus, companies should go beyond national regulations and occupational exposure limits when designing production processes that safeguard workers’ health. To protect workers it is not enough to seek compliance with Philippine law, for example.

Measures that promote workers’ own ability to advocate for their own safety are also vital to protect workers from chemical hazards. In this respect, the right to know is the cornerstone to ensure protection of workers from toxic exposures at work. Workers have a right to know about the effects of exposure to chemicals and the right to protect themselves from exposure at work. As Swedwatch appropriately notes, these principles must be implemented through measures that are location sensitive. The International Trade Union Confederation, the United Nations and others have long sounded the alarm about violent attacks and intimidation against workers and trade unionists and repression of protest by government forces in the Philippines. This toxic climate against workers who exercise their associational rights aggravates the hazards of the toxic chemicals to workers who cannot speak up about their rights without fear of reprisals. In this respect, it is vital, as Swedwatch suggest, that companies’ work to protect workers from hazardous chemicals is adjusted to the local context.

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