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Socially Responsible Public Procurement of Information Technology

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  • Stefan Beck

Abstract

Public authorities in Germany spend every year about 20 billion Euro for the procurement of information technologies, e.g. personal computers.This demand could be used to induce retailers and manufacturers to provide IT products that are produced in compliance with social (and ecological) standards. In this paper the difficulties, opportunities and approaches of socially responsible public procurement (SRPP) of IT products are discussed. Severe infringements of human rights, social or labour standards (e.g. ILO Core Conventions) have been revealed with regard to several stages of the IT value chain, in particular mining, manufacturing and the recycling of e-waste.Therefore – at least in the long run – SRPP should take the whole value chain into account and obligate the tenderer to take care that also suppliers comply with stipulated social standards. The establishment, however, of social standards on all stages of the IT value chain is a very difficult task. Whereas mining activities are often distant from the deliverer of end products and sometimes enmeshed in local conflicts and human rights abuses, large parts of e-waste are illegally shipped to developing countries and there recycled without any environmental or social regulation. Also in manufacturing compliance with social standards is not easy to ensure, since today most of it is carried out by large, globally organised contract manufacturers.The use of flexible, unorganised low wage labor was from the very beginning a constitutive element of contract manufacturing. Nowadays contract manufacturers like Foxconn or Flextronics, hardly known by consumers, manage huge parts of the value chain without being dependend on single brand companies. So the tendering public agency as well as the contracting company perhaps don’t have the means to ensure that contract manufacturers (and their suppliers) will comply with social standards. Aware of the economic damage negative publicity could inflict them, in particular brand companies have adopted concepts and instruments that should demonstrate their social responsibility. Besides company-specific codes of conduct or frameworks of corporate social responsibility meanwhile about 60 companies have adopted the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) code of conduct.The EICC code, however, does not refer to ILO core conventions and particularly ignores fundamental union rights, like freedom of association and collective bargaining. Another approach, the TCO certificate, developed by a swedish non-profit organisation, at least contains these standards, but remains limited to final assembly and lacks clearly defined obligations to make auditing transparent and the results public. Unions and civil society organisations, being critical of those approaches that are controlled unilaterally by the management, underscore the importance of union rights. Freedom of association and collective bargaining are not only substantial standards but also – as well as an independent auditing – crucial for the improvement and monitoring of employment and working conditions. Consequently those organisations call for multistakeholder-initiatives that include local unions and civil society organisations to foster and monitor social standards on different stages of the value chain. Public agencies willing to take social considerations into account should pursue a twotier strategy. In the short run they should integrate basic human rights and core labor standards into procurement (tendering and contracting), successively embracing the whole value chain.This approach, however, is limited due to, firstly, the characteristics of IT value chains and, secondly, the legal restrictions of procurement (specifications related to the subject of the contract).Therefore, in the long run, industry-wide and multistakeholder-initiatives should be encouraged or initiated to expand the reach of social standards and to improve the reliability of verification prcedures.

Suggested Citation

  • Stefan Beck, 2013. "Socially Responsible Public Procurement of Information Technology," ICDD Working Papers 6, University of Kassel, Fachbereich Gesellschaftswissenschaften (Social Sciences), Internatioanl Center for Development and Decent Work (ICDD).
  • Handle: RePEc:ajy:icddwp:6
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