Dell's suppliers accused of student worker abuse in China

Workers exposed to toxic fumes and squalid living conditions at four factories, labor rights groups say

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Two labor rights watchdogs have accused Dell's China-based suppliers of exploiting factory workers, forcing them to work long hours in squalid conditions. In a report published Tuesday, Danish nonprofit DanWatch claimed that electronics factories in China's Guangdong and Jiangsu regions are employing student workers, subjecting them to verbal abuse and forcing them to work up to 74 hours per week for well below the Chinese minimum wage. The report was published as part of a joint undercover investigation with China Labor Watch (CLW), marking the latest in a series of alleged labor abuses by Chinese suppliers of American technology companies.

"When companies compete on supplying computers in the cheapest way possible, and when our public buyers aim for the cheapest wares on the market, a high human cost is paid," Eva Hesse Lundström, DanWatch editor, said in a statement this week. "Our research shows that the conditions at Dell's suppliers violate [International Labour Organization] conventions and Chinese labor law as well as Dell's own policy."

The investigation covered four factories that manufacture PC components for Dell, Asus, HP, Microsoft, and Samsung, though DanWatch focused its attention on Dell because it supplies computers to the Danish government. According to the report, workers at these factories were regularly exposed to toxic fumes, and were forced to work between 48 and 136 hours of overtime per month. Many of the workers are students — including some under the age of 18 — who live in on-site dorms. In one dorm, there is only one toilet for 55 workers, and one shower for up to 90, the report claims.

90 workers, one shower

The DanWatch report was published just days before a separate Bloomberg Businessweek investigation revealed widespread cases of forced labor along Apple's overseas supply chain. Apple has made moves to crack down on labor abuse in Asia through audits and greater oversight, though critics have urged the company to do more.

When informed of the report, Dell said it had already audited three of the four sites, and that it would investigate any outstanding issues uncovered by DanWatch and CLW.

"When the DanWatch inquiry came in, we responded with a statement saying if there were issues brought up in their letter that were not identified in our recent audit findings, our Supply Chain Social and Environmental Responsibility (SCSER) team would investigate," Trisa Thopmson, Dell's VP of corporate responsibility, wrote in a blog post published Thursday.

"Since then, we have engaged the leadership teams at each of the suppliers in the report, collaborated on corrective action plans and have held regular meetings to ensure progress is being made on the plans," Thompson continued. "We will conduct a follow-up audit on all serious issues before any actions will be considered closed."

Correction: this article originally described the workers said to be abused in Dell supplier factories as "underage," because some were as young as 16, but that is the nationally-recognized minimum working age in China. We have since updated the article and apologize for the error.

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