12 March, 2008

Dell's history of prison labor - the stain remains

A Public Relations spokesoid from Dell stopped by Constellations today to leave a response to Monday's the dollars in the bars - "we're offering you competitive prison labor" post. The note is a friendly little example of the mix of corporate marketing/branding/propaganda that infests US social discourse today:

BryantatDell said...

Hi - I work at Dell on corporate responsibility issues and noticed your post today - a good topic to be raised indeed.

One note - in the highlight Dell is among the companies listed. It's important to note that Dell absolutely prohibits the use of prison labor -- either directly or through our suppliers -- globally.

In fact, among the other companies listed in that higlight I'm sure our competitors HP and IBM have similar prohibitions. Dell, HP and IBM were among the founders of the Electronic Industry Code of Conduct (www.eicc.info ) which prohibits use of indentured labor in the industry's supply chain.

Mr. Hilton I presume?

Mr. Hilton is probably aware (which I wasn't when originally posting) that Vicky Pelaez' article is from 2005 and covers the growing prison labor industries of the previous quarter-century. He also knows very well that Dell had a contract with Unicor during that period, operating an e-waste recycling program at the Atwater, CA prison (see prison labor & e-waste—smashing a computer to pieces) before it received national publicity unfavorably comparing its recycling practices to those of HP.

Surely he recalls, after that outpouring of negative publicity, the 7-4-03 NYT article by LAURIE J. FLYNN headlined:

Dell to Stop Using Prison Workers:

Responding to concerns from both customers and environmental advocates, Dell Computer announced yesterday that it would no longer rely on prisons to supply workers for its computer recycling program.

Dell, the world's largest seller of PC's, said it had canceled its contract with Unicor, a branch of the Federal Bureau of Prisons that employs prisoners for electronics recycling and other industries.

. . .

Last week, an environmental group in California released a report criticizing Dell's reliance on prison labor.

The group, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, said in its report that inmates who work at the prison recycling operation were not protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act and were paid from 20 cents to $1.26 an hour.

The report also criticized Unicor for not properly disposing of toxic waste.

. . .

Bryant Hilton, a spokesman for Dell, said that the decision to replace Unicor with other recycling contractors was a business decision, based in part on the fact that many other vendors are now more competitively priced.

But he conceded that the company had heard from some customers complaining about the prison program.

"We did not make a decision based on special interest groups," Mr. Hilton said.

& from a related article:

Dell Computer disputed the accusations in the report, saying that the recycling operations met environmental standards and that the prison population benefited from them. "Our goal is keeping all of our recycling offers as low cost as possible," a spokesman, Bryant Hilton, said. "Unicor is part of the answer."

He added that the work program was voluntary, not forced, and that inmates who took part in it had a 24 percent lower recidivism rate than the rest of the prison population.

Dell officials also disputed the contention that the prison labor recycling effort undercut the formation of an American recycling industry. "There is currently not enough capacity for electronics recycling in the United States," Mr. Hilton said. "Unicor is not driving anyone out of business."

I'd assume Dell was included in Vicky Pelaez' article because it employed prison labor during the historical period she covers. It's certainly not inaccurate as BryantatDell's note implies.

Saying that the "Electronic Industry Code of Conduct (www.eicc.info ) . . . prohibits use of indentured labor" is not the same as saying that it prohibits the use of prison labor, which, as the company spokesperson points out in the NYT article, is entirely voluntary.

There is nothing in the EEIC (which, it should be noted wasn't developed 'til 2004, & is dated 10/14/2005) that I can find which would preclude participation in prison work programs, nor from paying less than minimum wage when the law allows it:

The labor standards are:

1) Freely Chosen Employment

Forced, bonded or indentured labor or involuntary prison labor is not to be used. All work will be voluntary, and workers should be free to leave upon reasonable notice. Workers shall not be required to hand over government-issued identification, passports or work permits as a condition of employment.

. . .

4) Wages and Benefits

Compensation paid to workers shall comply with all applicable wage laws, including those relating to minimum wages, overtime hours and legally mandated benefits. In compliance with local laws, workers shall be compensated for overtime at pay rates greater than regular hourly rates. Deductions from wages as a disciplinary measure shall not be permitted. The basis on which workers are being paid is to be provided in a timely manner via pay stub or similar documentation.

Let's recall the conditions at Unicor's Atwater operation that Dell contracted for and that Mr. Hilton has publicly praised to be a "part of the answer":

UNICOR’s operation is organized primarily to maintain a maximum-security facility, rather than to maximize the efficiency with which e-waste is sorted and disassembled. Its prison warehouse is organizationally and technologically backward. Cheap labor, paid .20 to $1.26 per hour at Atwater, offers little incentive to invest in worker productivity. In addition, prison workers have few rights and little ability to improve health and safety conditions. Inmates toil outside the protection of state and local environmental and labor regulations that private sector recyclers must follow. Prison laborers are not considered employees and are not protected against retaliatory acts by their employer (UNICOR) under the Fair Labor Standard Act. Inmates are not allowed to unionize or to serve on the prison health and safety committees.

All 'voluntary.'

Dell is certainly to be commended for halting its exploitative use of prison laborers working for pennies under highly toxic, under-regulated conditions. (Unicor however continues its Atwater & other prison e-waste operations.)
It's also "important" for everyone to understand that discontinuing the Unicor contract was merely "a business decision" on Dell's part, and that even then, the company was vigorously affirming the general practice of prison labor & Unicor's business specifically - "a good topic to be raised indeed."

From what I understand of Dell's current recycling program, the company has taken a positive step in the right direction on that issue, regardless of whether it was a business decision, a public relations decision, or a "corporate responsibility" decision.

I'm curious, given the misleading response, if Dell can unequivocally declare that it & its subcontractors have "absolutely" forsworn any further use of prison labor in all aspects of its operations?

While Dell no doubt would like to erase its part in the history of this ugly exploitation, the stain remains.

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