Australia’s electronic companies are still failing to fully show whether people are being exploited in their supply chains but have made some improvements in transparency over the past couple of years, according to new research from Baptist World Aid Australia.

The organisation’s latest Electronic Industry Trends report shows that none of the 56 companies assessed in the research – which grades the strength of companies’ labour rights management systems in mitigating the risk of forced labour, child labour and exploitation in their supply chains - achieved an ‘A’ grade while the median score was a 'C'.

PICTURE: Baptist World Aid Australia

“What we’re really hoping that consumers do is that they start voting with their wallets and preferencing those companies that are doing more to ensure that the rights of workers are upheld throughout their supply chain and that they call on their favorite brands using our research to do more to protect workers. And we think if they keep on doing those two things, we’ll keep seeing some really strong improvement throughout supply chains.”

- Gershon Nimbalker, advocacy manager at Baptist World Aid Australia

While Garmin and now-in-administration Dick Smith achieved the highest grades, the worst performers included GoPro, Hisense, Palsonic, Polaroid, and Soniq. Many of those given poor grades - including Vorwerk, which sells kitchen appliance Thermomix, and Capital Brands, maker of the NutriBullet - had failed to provide information for the survey.

The latest findings come on the back on an earlier report released in 2014.

Gershon Nimbalker, advocacy manager at Baptist World Aid Australia, says this year's survey found that 64 per cent of companies surveyed across both reports had shown some improvement with five companies - SanDisk, Dick Smith, Asus, Garmin and Blackberry – singled out for particular praise.

“But I guess our worry with that was no company had improved sufficiently to receive an ‘A’ grade,” he adds.

Mr Nimbalker says while the biggest improvements came through increased transparency by companies – “in our 2014 report, 18 per cent of companies were at least making available their supplier list or some (portion) of their supplier list and it’s up to 36 per cent this year” – the reason none achieved an 'A' grade was because of the lack of information around suppliers and the work still needed to ensure all workers in that supply chain were paid a living wage.

While most companies were aware of suppliers in the final stage of manufacturing, he says “as you go deeper, only 11 per cent knew where their component manufacturers and smelters were and no company knew where it’s miners were - people who are mining minerals that wind up in its products”.

“That’s really concerning for us because it’s often deeper into the supply chain where the most egregious labour rights abuses occur."

He cites International Labour Organisation showing up to 60 million children are working in mines around the world. “And we certainly know that some of that mining activity is feeding straight into the electronics industry."

A 2013 report estimated that 40 per cent of the two million people working in mines for coltan, copper and cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo were children while other reports have shown children are also working in tin mines in Indonesia. Both supply materials ultimately used in electronics products.

Mr Nimbalker says the level of engagement with companies had risen since the last report with 61 per cent of those contacted participating compared to just 54 per cent in 2014. In response to suggestions that companies which don’t participate be given a “non-responsive” rating rather than a failing grade, Mr Nimbalker, noting the "robust way" in which companies are contacted, says the whole aim of the initiative is to ensure the public is aware of what companies are doing to protect workers in their supply chains.

"If companies aren’t being transparent and letting people know what they’re doing to protect workers, then how can we be sure that workers aren’t being exploited in their supply chains? And I guess that’s the point – people have a right to know and people want to know that the products they’re buying are free from exploitation.”

BWA plan on publishing an updated report on the electronics industry every 18 months to two years. Mr Nimbalker says based on the experience with a sister report on the fashion industry, he would expect to see the engagement by companies increase in the next report.

The report, which can be downloaded for free, also comes with a pocket guide for consumers to take with them when shopping (about 8,000 were sent out following the release of the last electronics report).

“What we’re really hoping that consumers do is that they start voting with their wallets and preferencing those companies that are doing more to ensure that the rights of workers are upheld throughout their supply chain and that they call on their favorite brands using our research to do more to protect workers,” Mr Nimbalker says. “And we think if they keep on doing those two things, we’ll keep seeing some really strong improvement throughout supply chains.”

He says he’s hopeful that some 'A'’s may be achieved in the next report. "Given the fact that this is the industry with the most valuable and most profitable companies in the world within it, we think there is certainly room for those companies to invest to ensure that they are reaching to the deepest levels of their supply chain and certainly making sure that their workers are being paid a living wage so they can lift themselves and their families out of poverty,” he says.

“We would hope to see those front-runners - companies like Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, LG, HP, Acer, and Intel - moving into that 'A' range and really investing in their supply chain management to do that.”

~ www.behindthebarcode.org.au