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Tech coalition launches sweatshop probe

Human-rights group's report on a keyboard supplier in China is leading to an audit of the factory by a watchdog coalition of tech giants.

A tech industry watchdog plans to investigate conditions at a Chinese hardware factory that supplies IBM, Microsoft, Dell, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard, following a damning report on conditions there by a human-rights organization.

The National Labor Committee report, "High Tech Misery in China," said these tech giants use Meitai Plastic and Electronics, a keyboard supplier that operates a factory that "dehumanizes young workers."

In response, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), a self-regulating body set up by tech companies, will carry out a third-party audit into the working conditions at the factory, IBM told ZDNet UK on Friday.

"Through the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, of which IBM is a founding member, a joint-audit is being conducted to assemble the facts and address this issue with the supplier or suppliers involved," an IBM representative said in an e-mailed statement. Microsoft, Dell, Lenovo, and HP are also members of the coalition.

The report by the National Labor Committee, a human-rights group based in Pittsburgh, covers the work environment in the Meitai Plastic and Electronics factory in Dongguan City, Guangdong, China. According to the report, released this month, workers sit on hard wooden stools for 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. Overtime is mandatory, with workers being given on average two days off per month.

Cover of the National Labor Committee report National Labor Committee

The report also said that while workers are on the production line, they are not allowed to raise their hands or their heads, and they are given 1.1 seconds to snap each key into place. Workers are prohibited from talking or listening to music and are encouraged "actively monitor each other" to see if any of the multiple company rules are being transgressed. They are also monitored by guards, according to the report.

It also found that workers are fined if they break the rules, that they are locked in the factory for four days per week, and that they sleep in crowded dormitories. The workers' gross wage is 64 cents per hour, which the report claims "does not even come close to meeting subsistence level needs," while their take-home pay is 41 cents per hour.

Report co-author Charles Kernaghan, who is co-director of the National Labor Committee, questioned whether the EICC probe would be effective.

"It's excellent (that there will be an investigation). But the fact that they've announced the date, of February the 23 and 24, guarantees the investigation will be compromised," Kernaghan told ZDNet UK on Friday. "It gives the factory time to threaten the workers, who will be coerced and terrified."

Kernaghan called on Lenovo to put pressure on the Chinese government to improve working conditions. "Lenovo is very important," he said. "As a Chinese company, they have the power and the right to approach the Chinese government and demand that labor laws be enforced."

Lenovo told ZDNet UK that it is involved in the investigation as a member of EICC, but that it does not purchase supplies directly from the Meitai facility.

"Lenovo makes every effort possible to investigate and ensure that our suppliers adhere to and comply with accepted international manufacturing standards and labor practices and takes these matters very seriously," it said in a statement.

In addition, Lenovo said it will call on its intermediate supplier to investigate the facility to verify the findings of the report and "help identify corrective actions." HP said that it will wait until the results of the EICC audit until taking action.

"The factory named in the report is not one of HP's direct suppliers, but is a supplier to two of our suppliers," the company said in a statement. "HP will audit this facility through a validated industry audit. Based on the results of the audit, we will work together with our supplier to develop corrective actions where appropriate."

Microsoft and Dell had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.

Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK reports from London.