India’s $4 Smartphone Rings Alarm Bells on Workers’ Conditions

Ringing Bells, the Indian makers of a $4 (Rs 264 approx) smartphone, hope its low price will allow millions of the poorest people to own a mobile
phone in a market with only 10 percent penetration.

But labour rights campaigners worry that the push to churn out cheap handsets and tablets may lead to increased abuse of workers’
rights in India, the world’s fastest-growing smartphone market.

Ringing Bells’ Freedom 251 smartphone, whose launch in February crashed the company’s website, is priced at 251 rupees – possibly the cheapest Android smartphone in the world.

Ringing Bells pays fair wages to its workers and its pricier models will help offset the cost of the $4 phone, said Mohit Goel, Director of Ringing Bells, in defence of his business model.

With only one in 10 Indians owning a mobile phone, there is enormous potential – much of it at the lower end of the market, where dozens of local and foreign brands are vying for customers, with some handsets selling for less than $25.

However, the pressure to keep costs low is pushing manufacturers to pay low wages, rely on cheaper contract labour and insist on unpaid overtime, activists say.

Gopinath Parakuni, General Secretary, Cividep

Responsibility of the supply chain and workers lies with brand companies. Our regulations simply aren’t strong enough to ensure workers in the electronics industry are taken care of.

Who Pays the Price?

Last month Cividep and Amsterdam-based GoodElectronics issued a report on Samsung Electronics, the leader in India’s mobile market, which found that Samsung workers were poorly paid with no way to effectively have their grievances addressed.

A Samsung India spokesperson said the company complies by all relevant labour laws and regulations wherever it operates.

Samsung India spokesperson

Fairness and respect for all are the values that form the foundation of our business,” the spokesman

The “Make in India” drive to boost manufacturing is aimed at luring more investment, raising economic growth and creating jobs in industries such as electronics and apparel.

But these efforts lack sufficient checks and balances for millions of workers who face archaic labour laws, low wages, few benefits and little job security in businesses that often flout laws on safety or underage workers, activists say.

In India’s electronics industry, working conditions are “among the worst”, according to a 2013 report by Hong Kong-based labour rights non-profit Asia Monitor Resource Centre.

(This piece has been published in an arrangement with Reuters India.)