Companies bidding to mold parts for printers or computers have something new to consider beyond the price.
Key customers in the electronics industry have launched a manufacturing manifesto, asking component makers to take responsibility for their business ethics.
Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Inc. and IBM Corp., along with major suppliers like injection molder Flextronics International Ltd., Jabil Circuit Inc., Sanmina-SCI Corp. and Solectron Corp., created the Electronics Industry Code of Conduct in October.
The code calls on manufacturers to sign on to operating rules covering everything from employee safety to pollution controls to banning child labor.
``As an industry, we can effect change within all of our supplier base,'' Judith Glazer, director of process development supply-chain services for Hewlett-Packard, said during a March 9 presentation at National Manufacturing Week in Chicago.
Sponsoring companies in the program - now joined by Microsoft Corp., Cisco Systems and Intel - are adding muscle to the standards with a set of tools that will help companies track how well their suppliers are doing. They say the plan minimizes red tape by the contract manufacturers.
Hewlett-Packard created its own Social and Environmental Responsibility program in 2002. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company has a wide reach, Glazer noted, doing business in 178 countries and buying $52 billion in goods and services in 2004.
Glazer said HP thought the plan would help the firm avoid the kind of image problems that have crept up in other industries. Shoe and textile makers, for instance, were slapped with a sweatshop label by activists in the 1990s, usually for activities in supplier companies they could not control.
``Having learned about that from [those businesses], our thought was that if you want to feel good about how our products are manufactured, we need to look at a code of conduct,'' she said.
Even with HP's purchasing might, though, it found itself fighting for acceptance of its supplier-ethics program. Companies questioned why they should make changes if Hewlett-Packard was the only one asking for them, Glazer said.
The new industry base adds muscle.
``We need the whole industry - or at least most of the industry - to change things,'' she said.
The code has not made its way through the entire supply chain yet, since it affects only the first tier of suppliers. But member companies hope its reach will widen.
``Our intent is not to be the police,'' Glazer said. ``The intent is to help them come up with policies that help them address their own issues.''
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Some rules in the Electronic Industry Code of Conduct
* All workers must be at their jobs voluntarily. No forced, bonded or involuntary prison labor is to be used.
* Work weeks must not exceed the maximum set by local law. They must not be longer than 60 hours per week, including overtime, except in emergency situations. Workers must be allowed at least one day off per week.
* Physical barriers must be provided and maintained around machinery, and workers must be supplied with proper safety equipment.
* All required environmental permits must be obtained, maintained and kept current.
* Any and all forms of corruption, extortion and embezzlement are prohibited.
* Bribes are not to be offered or accepted.