How fair is Fairphone?

I recently attended the London launch of Fairphone — “a seriously cool smartphone that puts social values first”.

Fairphone is a Dutch initiative to create an alternative to the decidely “unfair” phones that are being made and sold today.

Their phone, prototypes of which were available at the launch, is in some ways an improvement upon the mass-manufactured phones most of us carry around today.

Those phones are usually made with little or no concern for the environment or the well-being of the workers who make them.

Fairphone, on the other hand, aims to use “fair and confict-free resources”, is committed to environmentally-friendly solutions to the problem of e-waste, and has given the phone an “open design”.

All good, but when it comes to who actually makes the phone, we run into some problems.

Originally, it seems, Fairphone aimed to make the phone in Europe, but quickly gave up on that and moved its manufacture to China.

As they explain, “Fairphone intends to manufacture in China because … we feel our model can make a difference in improving working conditions and environmental impacts in China”.

So, it’s a unionized factory then?

Not exactly.

Because Fairphone’s vision for workers doesn’t seem to include unions — any unions.

Fairphone says that in China they are committed to “creating a fund to improve worker’s wages and working conditions and open discussions between workers and their employers”.

Open discussion between workers and their employers?

That’s it?

Even the state-controlled unions in China offer more than that.

Let’s be blunt: these are weasel words.

Fairphone says they “want every worker … to earn a fair wage” but the only concrete step they’ve taken in that direction is to partner with “an independent, third-party social assessment organization to perform an assessment”.

In plainer English, that means a group that like the Rainforest Alliance, which notoriously certifies union-busting banana plantations as being “ethical”.

The company Fairphone has hired is paid by Fairphone to give a similar (and equally worthless) seal of approval for their factories.

This kind of paternalistic approach to industrial relations takes us back centuries, back to the pre-Marxian Utopian Socialists who relied on the goodwill of well-intentioned, humane capitalists like Robert Owen.

Workers don’t need “independent third-party social assessment organizations” and they don’t need “open discussions” with their bosses.  They need the only thing that actually works to ensure health and safety in the workplace, decent wages, and job security – an independent trade union.

And there won’t be any of those in FairPhone’s factory in China.

To be fair, it may well be difficult for FairPhone to compete on price if it were to be manufactured in Europe.

So one might understand the need, strictly on a commercial basis, to use a low-wage country somewhere in Asia to make the phones.

But why choose a low-wage country that also happens to be completely union-free?

Asia is full of countries that have low-wage workforces, but where there are unions that at least try to organise and represent those workers.

China is surrounded by such countries, any one of which (except North Korea) has a better record on workers’ rights.

The people behind Fairphone are clearly well-intentioned and want to make the world a better place.  But by opting for non-union manufacture in China, and trying to placate critics with sops like “social assessment” and “open discussion”, they’re ducking the serious issues.

A truly fair FairPhone would carry the one label that really mattered: a union label.


This article was published in Solidarity. Please post any comments there.