Hewlett-Packard Co. Friday (Feb. 8) introduced new labor guidelines for student and dispatch workers at its suppliers with operations in China. Call it a small step in the right direction.
HP said it set the guidelines "in an effort to proactively address the significant increase in the use of student and dispatch workers—such as temporary, auxiliary and substitute workers—in manufacturing facilities across China."
HP also claimed that its guidelines for student and dispatch workers are the first in the information and technology industry. That may technically be true, but Apple Inc. has taken a leadership position in high tech on worker rights in China. Apple last year became the first electronics company to join the Fair Labor Association watchdog group, publishes regular reports on labor conditions at its suppliers and last year fired one supplier that was found to use workers under the age of 16.
Like Apple, HP likely felt the heat coming from advocacy groups campaigning to improve worker rights in China. HP said its guidelines were developed in consultation with China's Center for Child Rights and Corporate Responsibility. The guidelines also reinforce existing regulatory requirements and introduce expectations that go beyond regulations for HP's suppliers, the company said.
"HP has a history of leadership in proactively addressing labor issues and driving supply chain improvements," said Tony Prophet, HP's senior vice president for worldwide supply chain operations, in a statement. "We have worked closely with leading Chinese stakeholders to develop our new student and temporary worker guidelines to ensure the highest standards of ethical workforce management."
Among the guidelines: all work must be voluntary, local regulations much be reinforced or exceeded, suppliers must limit the number of student workers they use and student work must also complement the students' primary area of study, HP said.
HP said it is asking suppliers to comply with the guidelines immediately. The company plans to measure the suppliers though ongoing audits as well as the company's performance indicator program, which regularly collects key social and environmental responsibility performance information on suppliers.
Obviously the situation in the U.S. is different than in China, but that first one seems rather incredulous. Work must be voluntary? Really? Isn't there a term we use for forced labor?
HP explains: "Student and temporary workers shall be free to leave work at any time upon reasonable notice without negative repercussions, and they must have access to reliable and reprisal-free grievance mechanisms."
Like Apple, HP should be applauded for taking this small, tentative step toward improving conditions in China for the workers building its products. But like Apple, HP isn't doing this to promote fair labor standards any more than it is trying to protect itself from consumer backlash (which for the most part isn't there yet). It's unfortunate that things that we may perceive as basic human rights still need to be written down and codified.