Forced Labor in Imported Computers and Electronics

by Antonios J. Bokas

Abstract: Evidence from public reports and research indicates forced labor operations are used in China and Malaysia to manufacture computers and electronics, which are imported into the US. Further research reveals that mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for minerals essential to computers and electronics is influenced by militia gangs that also utilize forced labor. Recommendations for detecting and preventing forced labor situations in supply chains are therefore examined and provided.


Disturbing evidence exists that shows imported computers and electronics are manufactured using modern-day slave labor. The civilized world, which thought it had rid itself of the stain of slavery in the 1800s and child labor in the early 1900s, currently enjoys the rotten fruits of forced labor perhaps more than ever before. An investigation into claims of forced labor in US supply chains reveals dark and troubling video, images, reports, and anecdotal evidence that suggest China, among other nations, is a prime facilitator and employer of forced labor. To prevent the importation of goods made with forced labor, American companies, small and large, must implement best-practices that will prevent forced labor from entering their supply chains and detect it if it does eventually occur. However, in order to take preventive action, Americans must first understand how forced labor is utilized in modern industry.

Scope of Research

Although well-known examples of forced labor exist in various industries, the computer and electronics industry was selected because of its prevalence in and importance to modern American society and infrastructure. This industry includes “computers, computer peripherals, communications equipment, and similar electronic products” according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021). (Note: instances of certain minerals mined using forced labor are included in this research as they directly contribute to the functionality of computer and electronic devices.) With this narrowly defined, modern industry in mind, the incidence and influence of forced labor in US imports will be examined.

Slavery Redefined

Despite what propaganda describes as a utilization of “surplus laborers,” forced labor is nothing but a systematic effort to subjugate vulnerable populations for the sake of cheap labor (Sheffler, 2019, 2:32). The White House (2020) aptly describes how traffickers develop forced labor by preying “on the vulnerabilities of their intended victims, depriving them of their dignity and self-worth, and endangering their physical and mental well-being, for the purposes of profit.” Nowhere in this description does it say people must be shackled and steered around in chain gangs—imagery associated with historical American slavery—in order to be forced laborers. In fact, modern-day slavery takes visual forms that can be quite deceiving.

One example of a deceptive form of forced labor, used by China, involves the relocation and indoctrination of Uighur Muslims before their internment in labor camps (Sheffler, 2019). China brands these operations as “poverty alleviation initiatives” (2:27). Yet, victims in these indoctrination camps say they are not allowed to leave at will or go back home to visit family, and one victim says he makes one-third of his former salary. Now that some forms of forced labor have been described, a brief history of US laws designed to inhibit the importation of slave-made goods will be reviewed.

History of Forced Labor Laws

The US has taken effective and definite steps to prevent forced labor goods from entering its borders. In 1930, the US passed the Tariff Act, which bans the importation of “goods, wares, articles,” and “mined” merchandise produced by forced labor (Plouffe-Malette & Brisson, 2019, p. 92). The act further defines forced laborers as people who (a) do not volunteer to work and (b) are threatened with penalties for nonperformance. In 2016, the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act (TFTEA) was passed, which closed a loophole in the Tariff Act that allowed goods made with forced labor to be imported if Americans were unable to produce them.

The agency that physically enforces the Tariff Act and TFTEA, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), has been in charge of interdicting illegal imports for almost a century. According to records, between 1930 and 2021, CBP has revoked the importation licenses of companies 62 times (see Table 1) (CBP, 2021). In a striking statistic, the top two nationalities of companies banned by CBP for using forced labor are

  1. China, which accounts for 69% of all companies banned, and
  2. Malaysia, which accounts for 6%.

Table 1. Number of Companies Banned Between 1930 and 2021 for Utilizing Forced Labor

National OriginCompanies Banned
China43
Malaysia4
Other4
Mexico2
Brazil1
Democratic Republic of the Congo1
India1
Japan1
Malawi1
Mongolia1
Nepal1
Turkmenistan1
Zimbabwe1
Total Bans (All-time)62

Note. Of the 43 all-time bans on Chinese companies, 20 occurred under the George H. W. Bush administration (between October 3, 1991 and August 14, 1992), 11 occurred under the Clinton and Obama administrations (between July 8, 1993 and September 16, 2016), and 12 occurred under the Trump administration (between March 5, 2018 and January 13, 2021). Adapted from “Withhold Release Orders and Findings,” by US Customs and Border Protection, 2021. (https://www.cbp.gov/trade/programs-administration/forced-labor/withhold-release-orders-and-findings).

In addition to computers and electronics, some of the prominent industries in which forced labor is used are cotton, clothing, food products, furniture, and machinery (CBP, 2021). However, with the Tariff Act loophole now closed, CBP can more effectively seize goods produced with forced labor before they enter domestic markets, as shown by 12 new bans since the removal of the loophole in 2016.

Forced Labor in China

News Reports

Public awareness about forced labor in the Chinese computer and electronics industry increased dramatically last year. According to 2018 data, China exported 31.3% of their computers ($46.2B) to the US (OEC, 2021a). In July of 2020, the US sanctioned a Chinese company named Nanchang O-Film Tech, which makes cameras for Apple iPhones and cameras and touch screens for Huawei, Lenovo, and Samsung (Swanson, 2020). Later that year, another Chinese company named Hefei Bitland Information Technology (HBIT) was banned for manufacturing computer parts using forced labor in the Xinjiang Uighur region (see Figure 1) (Homeland Security, 2020). According to reports, HBIT, which makes laptops and smartphones, listed Foxconn, Google, HP, and Lenovo—which had imported 258,000 laptops just prior to the ban—as partners on its website (Kan, 2020; Swanson, 2020). Kan also notes that Foxconn is “the world’s largest contract supplier for electronics.” In addition to news sources, various government reports detail elements of the Chinese forced labor process.

Figure 1. Goods Produced in Xinjiang on the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act List

Note. Adapted from “2020 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor,” by US Bureau of International Labor Affairs, 2020, US Department of Labor, p. 29. (https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ILAB/child_labor_reports/tda2019/2020_TVPRA_List_Online_Final.pdf).

Government Reports

In a summary of findings about China by the Bureau of International Labor Affairs (2021), they say data from “media sources, government raids, and NGOs [non-governmental organizations]” indicate

  • Children ages 13 to 15 are forced to produce electronics in Guangdong province;
  • The children are typically from the Henan, Shanxi, or Sichuan provinces;
  • The children are not allowed to return home;
  • The income earned by the children is used to pay for food, lodging, and school “tuition debts,” leaving them little money left over; and
  • Some children are abducted by recruiters for the labor program. (China section)

Further investigation of these claims shows that Henan is 15 hours away from Guangdong province and Shanxi and Sichuan are each approximately 20 hours away from Guangdong province (Google, n.d.-a; Google, n.d.-b; Google, n.d.-c). Basic logistics validate the contention that the teenagers are unable to return home on a daily basis. The claim is also substantiated by the known Chinese strategy of forcefully relocating workers from villages to industrial regions for military-style indoctrination and labor (see Figure 2) (Buckley & Ramzy, 2019). China undeniably uses forced labor to make computers and electronics, although its extent is not yet known.

Figure 2. Alleged Drone Footage of Detained Uighur Muslims

Note. From “Leaked video shows hundreds of blindfolded and bound men CNN” [Video] by CNN, 2019, YouTube, 0:20. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPdiQy2mkgM).

Unfortunately, the Bureau of International Labor Affairs (2021) fails to provide a similar description of forced labor for Malaysia as it does for China, besides that the goods produced include “electronics” (Malaysia section). CBP has also never banned any Malaysian computer or electronic products. However, various news reports shed light on Malaysian forced labor.

Forced Labor in Malaysia

News Reports

Malaysia is a developing nation that has a large electronics industry, which some claim relies on forced labor from immigrants. In 2018, they exported 14.2% (or $7.87B) of their top export—integrated circuits—to the US, placing the US fourth behind Hong Kong, China, and Singapore (OEC, 2021b). International companies have flocked to Malaysia in order to make other electronics such as semiconductors, televisions, and keyboards (Ramchandani, 2018). In fact, electronics account for 36% of their national exports. Malaysia is also host to at least 1.8 million immigrant workers. However, in a study of 400 immigrant workers in the electronics industry, approximately 32% were considered forced laborers.

As in China, workers in the electronics industry are relocated, mostly legally, from nearby countries to Malaysia, but they often pay exorbitant recruitment fees to get a job—fees that are sometimes three times their monthly income (Ramchandani, 2018). Once they arrive in Malaysia, they then must pay additional expenses for housing and passports in the form of “deductions” from their salary (para. 21). Many thousands of immigrants live in desolate camps with no drinking water or plumbing, sometimes sharing one small house with up to 20 people. Companies confronted with allegations of forced labor say they expect their supply chains to maintain legal standards; however, they often fail to do so, which leads to human rights violations. Although Ramchandani notes that the situation for workers in Malaysia is not “uniformly bad,” many immigrant workers are clearly being forced into labor situations, based on contemporary standards (para. 24).

NGO Reports

One of the sources cited by Ramchandani is Verité, an NGO hired by the US Department of Labor to investigate the existence of forced labor specifically in the Malaysian electronics industry. In their report from 2014, they further elucidate a government law that assists the illicit recruitment process. According to existing Malaysian law, companies that utilize immigrant workers must pay a levy (Verité, 2014). But in 2013, a new policy allowed those companies the option to pay the levy in advance and then charge the debt to the immigrant worker in the form of 12 monthly installments. The levy is equal to 1,250 ringgit (or $387), and is a “significant sum” for workers to absorb, forcing them to remain in Malaysia despite wanting to leave (p. 12). The report also claims that 28% of all Malaysian workers in the electronics industry—not just immigrant workers—are in “situations of forced labor” (p. 10). These claims represent a disturbing status of the labor industry in Malaysia and raise the question of whether slave-made electronics are being exported to the US.

Forced Labor in Other Countries

In addition to the recruitment of factory workers into situations of forced labor, the scourge of modern slavery exists further down the supply chain in less industrialized nations. In his report, Mantz (2018) suggests that the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the center of an illicit mineral laundering operation. Minerals such as cobalt, coltan, copper, and gold, which are indispensable to electronics and abundant in the DRC, are often mined by slaves. According to Mantz, militias

attack rural villages, gang rape women and girls (and more recently men), steal any harvestable agricultural products, raid their cattle, conscript children into their ranks as soldiers and sex slaves, and force those who [remain] to mine or work as porters.

(p. 572)

In contrast to profiteers in the illicit mining industry, small-scale miners in the DRC want transparency and humane working conditions. But Mantz (2018) explains that small-scale miners were banned by the Congolese government from “production and trade in all conflict minerals” in 2010 after the passage of the US Dodd-Frank reforms (p. 536). He further claims that mostly small-scale miners, not the militias, are the ones being negatively affected by the bans. According to his informants, after minerals are illegally mined, they are trucked to neighboring Rwanda—a country that is considered a higher producer of minerals than the DRC, despite having fewer mineral reserves, a much smaller work force, and a much smaller land mass. In Rwanda, traders are able to make up to 20% more in premiums. Mantz concludes that once Congolese ore is harvested, “in one way or another” it is shipped to Australia, China, India, and Thailand for processing (p. 543). This account of illicit mining in the DRC supports the prospect that minerals important to the computer and electronics industry are being laundered into the U.S as manufactured parts (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Mineral Laundering Process from the DRC to the US via China

Note. Adapted from “2020 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor,” by US Bureau of International Labor Affairs, 2020, US Department of Labor, p. 43. (https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ILAB/child_labor_reports/tda2019/2020_TVPRA_List_Online_Final.pdf).

Counteractive Measures

Although US law prohibits the importation of products made or procured with forced labor, American companies must also take individual action to stop it. The American Bar Association contends that individual companies can prevent exposure to forced labor supply chains by following their Model Principles (Johnson & Chan, 2019). Companies following the Model Principles should do the following:

  1. Ban forced labor in their operations.
  2. Conduct initial and continual risk assessments to monitor compliance.
  3. Increase training of employees and communication with suppliers.
  4. Develop remedial policies and plans to address forced labor situations if they occur.

By adhering to this doctrine, the American Bar Association says companies will not only be in compliance with current law, but also with laws they anticipate will be adopted in the future. Companies conducting risk assessments should consider factors such as “the type of business conducted, where the business will be conducted, the history of labor trafficking … in an industry or sector, operating context, [and] the particular operations, products, or services involved” (p. 5). The Model Principles are appealing because they help a business mitigate the financial, legal, and moral risks involved with forced labor regardless of governmental actions.

Conclusion

Computers and electronics imported into the US are evidently resourced and manufactured, in part, using forced labor. In various industries, the top violators of US forced labor laws are companies from China and Malaysia, with Chinese companies accounting for 69% of all bans by CBP. However, recent information indicates that a broad forced labor procurement and production operation exists in the Chinese and Malaysian manufacturing industries for computers and electronics as well. Further evidence that mining in mineral-rich countries, such as the DRC, is controlled by depraved militia organizations complicates the forced labor quandary faced by American importers.

Despite many unknowns, one fact remains constant: American businesses ultimately bear the burden of protecting themselves and their consumers from the inhumane influence of forced labor. Forced labor has been outlawed since the early 20th century, yet it has continued and possibly even grown. The American Bar Association explains that adopting their basic ethical principles to detect, prevent, and educate others about forced labor is a corporate responsibility, but in common terms it is simply “the right thing to do” (Woods, 2019, p. 5).

References

Buckley, C., & Ramzy, A. (2019, December 30). To China, Muslim workers are eager recruits. Others see forced labor. The New York Times. http://web.archive.org/web/20191230144015/https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/30/world/asia/china-xinjiang-muslims-labor.html

Bureau of International Labor Affairs. (2020). 2020 list of goods produced by child labor or forced labor. US Department of Labor. https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ILAB/child_labor_reports/tda2019/2020_TVPRA_List_Online_Final.pdf

Bureau of International Labor Affairs. (2021). List of goods produced by child labor or forced labor. US Department of Labor. https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods?tid=All&field_exp_good_target_id=5784&field_exp_exploitation_type_target_id_1=All&items_per_page=10

CNN. (2019, December 6). Leaked video shows hundreds of blindfolded and bound men [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPdiQy2mkgM

Department of Homeland Security. (2020, September 14). DHS cracks down on goods produced by China’s state-sponsored forced labor [Press release]. https://www.dhs.gov/news/2020/09/14/dhs-cracks-down-goods-produced-china-s-state-sponsored-forced-labor

Google. (n.d.-a). [Google Maps directions for driving from Guangdong province to Henan]. Retrieved February 18, 2021, from https://www.google.com/maps/dir/Henan,+China/Guangdong+Province,+China/@28.7584641,109.0722043,6z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m13!4m12!1m5!1m1!1s0x35d692e354d4df61:0x82b2157827a21acb!2m2!1d113.3823545!2d34.2904302!1m5!1m1!1s0x315285f132af5c3f:0x2ed41c6f09259f29!2m2!1d113.7632828!2d23.3790333

Google. (n.d.-b). [Google Maps directions for driving from Guangdong province to Shanxi]. Retrieved February 18, 2021, from https://www.google.com/maps/dir/Shaanxi,+China/Guangdong+Province,+China/@29.3177389,107.4492625,6z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m13!4m12!1m5!1m1!1s0x36637a6013eba79f:0x41c96e6fcb615716!2m2!1d109.1880047!2d35.3939908!1m5!1m1!1s0x315285f132af5c3f:0x2ed41c6f09259f29!2m2!1d113.7632828!2d23.3790333

Google. (n.d.-c). [Google Maps directions for driving from Guangdong province to Sichuan]. Retrieved February 18, 2021, from https://www.google.com/maps/dir/Sichuan,+China/Guangdong+Province,+China/@26.7787989,106.0393774,7z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m13!4m12!1m5!1m1!1s0x36e4e73368bdcdb3:0xde8f7ccf8f99feb9!2m2!1d102.8054753!2d30.2638032!1m5!1m1!1s0x315285f132af5c3f:0x2ed41c6f09259f29!2m2!1d113.7632828!2d23.3790333

Johnson, E., & Chan, N. (2016). The ABA model principles: Not only a tool for compliance, but also one to end slavery and child labor in supply chains. Business Law Today, 1-6. doi:10.2307/businesslawtoday.2016.06.04

Kan, M. (2020, September 14). US blocks imports from Chinese laptop maker tied to Lenovo, Google. PC Mag. https://www.pcmag.com/news/us-blocks-imports-from-chinese-laptop-maker-tied-to-lenovo-google

Mantz, J. W. (2018). From digital divides to creative destruction: epistemological encounters in the regulation of the “blood mineral” trade in the Congo. Anthropological Quarterly, 91(2), 525–549.

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Plouffe-Malette, K., & Brisson, H. (2019). Forced labour and trade: A Canada-United States comparative analysis. European Review of International Studies, 6(3), 84–100.

Ramchandani, A. (2018, June 2018). Forced labor is the backbone of the world’s electronics industry. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2018/06/malaysia-forced-labor-electronics/563873/

Sheffler, M. (2019). Secret video offers rare look inside Chinese labor program [Video]. The New York Times. https://nyti.ms/395wPEh

Swanson, Ana. (2020, July 20). U.S. imposes sanctions on 11 Chinese companies over human rights. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/20/business/economy/china-sanctions-uighurs-labor.html

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Industries at a glance: Computer and electronic product manufacturing: NAICS. https://www.bls.gov/iag/tgs/iag334.htm

US Customs and Border Protection. (2021). Withhold release orders and findings. Retrieved on February 6, 2021 from, https://www.cbp.gov/trade/programs-administration/forced-labor/withhold-release-orders-and-findings

Verité. (2014). Forced labor in the production of electronic goods in Malaysia: A comprehensive study of scope and characteristics. https://verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/VeriteForcedLaborMalaysianElectronics2014.pdf

White House. (2020). The Trump administration’s priority actions to combat human trafficking. https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/NAP-Exec-Summary.pdf

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