Is Fairphone fair for workers?

If you own a smartphone, you’re almost certainly contributing to several big problems in the world. These include a negative environmental impact, the production of mountains of e-waste as perfectly good phones are thrown away, and of course the exploitation of workers in the supply chains, from the mines in the Congo to assembly lines in China.

A decade-old Dutch company, Fairphone, has set out to change all this by producing an “ethical” smartphone. Last week they announced their latest — and by far their best — model, the Fairphone 4. Thousands of people participated in the online launch event.

Fairphone boasts that it uses ethically-produced minerals, including Fair-trade gold, where possible. It fights against planned obsolescence by making the phone easily repairable by users. Each phone shipped includes a small screwdriver so you can open your phone and remove parts, including the battery. (Try doing that on an iPhone.) Their efforts have gotten Fairphone recognised as a “B Corporation” — one of the highest standards for ethical behaviour in the corporate world.

As for the workers who make the phones, Fairphone says it’s committed to “develop innovative programs to improve job satisfaction and representation, and to open the lines of communication between workers and management.”

They say that they “listen to what the workers want to change, involve them in the implementation of solutions and empower them to have an influence on their working conditions.”

And now we come to Sherlock Holmes’ famous “dog that did not bark in the night”. Because in all the lovely words about “involving” workers, and “opening lines of communication” and “listening” there is absolutely no mention of the one thing that we know actually works if you want to empower workers in the workplace.

And that thing is trade unions.

Why does Fairphone have nothing to say about unions? For the simple reason that their phones are manufactured in China, a country where the only independent trade union — the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions — has been forced to shut down, and its leaders jailed. China is one vast “union-free” zone, with workers denied the most basic rights enshrined in the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation.

When I first raised this with Fairphone several years ago, I was told that of course they would love to work with unions, but that there really was no place in the world other than China to manufacture their phones.

Have they not heard of companies like Samsung, LG, Sony and Asus? They manufacture some of their phones in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan — countries which have thriving, independent trade union movements.

In those countries, workers don’t need the patronising language of “listening” and “involving”. Instead they have mass organisations, collective bargaining and powerful tools like the right to strike. Workers in China — the workers who make the Fairphone — have none of these rights.

The bottom line is that Fairphone seems very well intentioned and have carved out a niche market among people who care about the environment and, to a lesser degree, the rights of workers. And to be fair, they have managed to raise wages and improve working conditions for people who make their phones.

Maybe a little bit of pressure from the labour movement might help convince Fairphone to re-think where they make their phones.

If you want to make a truly “ethical” and “fair” phone, at the moment you can’t do that in China. Fairphone must find another place to make their product.

This column appeared today in Solidarity.