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IT firms agreed with unions and governments to root exploitation out of their global supply chains after an historic meeting of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva this week.

The ILO has never tackled the IT industry before, but its size, the relocation of its manufacturing base to Asia, and emerging stories of worker exploitation have caught its attention.

It called a meeting of manufacturers, industry bodies, governments, and unions, who spent two days hammering out a compromise between corporate need and human dignity, the result of which was an ambiguous text that describes how manufacturers care about their people, but that their people ought to understand how tough it is to compete in a global industry.

Bonnie Nixon, a Hewlett Packard supply chain boss who negotiated on behalf of employers, said the text "formalised our commitment to social dialogue".

Employers wanted to improve labour standards and make sure they were adopted throughout their supply chain, she said. But employees had to understand that labour standards had to be viable in the context of a firm's long-term competitiveness.

"If a company goes out of business because its uncompetitive, then everyone loses," she said.

Robert Steiert, a director of the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF), who negotiated for workers, was concerned employers had been reluctant to stick their necks out for workers.

"The problem for me is how far companies are bound by what their employers' representatives have been deciding. And what of the companies who were not there?" he said.

Apple, which was criticised last year for working conditions at the factory subcontracted to manufacture its iPods, was present at the meeting. Foxconn, its subcontractor, was also present. Elcoteq, one of the world's top 10 contract manufacturers and which serves Nokia, was also absent.

Big brands already operate voluntary codes of conduct, but Steiert said these are weak in comparison to the international framework agreements - also voluntary - that unions have negotiated in other sectors.

"IT companies have not been prepared to talk to us about international framework agreements," he said.

The IMF had negotiated 50 framework agreements with multinationals in other sectors, holding employers to the fundamental human rights set out in the "core labour standards" of the ILO. Steiert was pleased to have got a mention of frameworks in the Geneva text, but disappointed that employers had not committed to forming one.

And there's the sand in the oyster - Steiert said IT firms fall back on national law, which is often inadequate. The US, for example, has not ratified the ILO's core labour standards.

The text, however, appears to commit them - voluntarily - to international standards, not national protectorates: "In countries in which the fundamental ILO core Conventions are not complied with, all parties should refer to them for guidance in their social policy."

Two of these standards were explicitly supported in the text: the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The other three of the five were not - prohibition of child or forced labour, and discrimination in the workplace.

Manufacturers who contributed to the text at the meeting included Cisco, Dell, Intel, Lenovo, Microsoft, Philips, Selectron, Sony, ST Micro, and Xerox. That's a start, at least. ®

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