The (EM)2 project (Ecological Modernization of Electronics Manufacturing in Thailand)

Overview

This project examines business, regulatory, and social dynamics in the adoption of environmental technologies and processes in Thailand's electronics industry. The research seeks to document accomplishments in Thailand's electronics manufacturing sector (integrated circuits, disk drive sub-assembly, printed circuit boards, etc.) in addressing occupational and community environmental and health concerns, and to identify which social factors have influenced such developments.

It is being developed as part of a collaborative and comparative study of "Ecological Modernization of High Performance Economies in East and Southeast Asia," including also related industries in Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam; and small and medium-sized enterprises in China, Thailand, and Vietnam. Proposals for the broader study have been submitted to the International Human Dimensions Programme on Industrial Transformation (IHDP-IT) and various European funding agencies, and will be prepared for the National Science Foundation (USA).

Background

Electronics manufacturing has been a leading sector of industrial growth and economic dynamism around the world for nearly half a century. Initially established in the USA and Europe in the 1950s and '60s, electronics firms began moving manufacturing operations to Southeast Asia in a big way in the 1970s and '80s. Electronics manufacturing has been a leading sector of investment and expansion in the region since, making significant contributions to host nations' economic and human resource development. Prospects for the continued viability of this export-oriented industry remain strong even through the region’s financial ups and downs.

Initially considered an exemplary "clean" industry, in recent years occupational and community environmental and health concerns have been raised related to electronics manufacturing. Subsequently, international design centers have undertaken to reengineer and otherwise modify manufacturing processes to make them healthier for workers and nearby residents, less toxic for the environment, and at the same time often more cost-efficient for business. In Southeast Asia, as manufacturing has become more sophisticated, leading firms especially in the transnational, export-oriented segment of the industry, have undertaken efforts to improve environmental performance. A growing number of firms have sought and obtained ISO 14001 and other certification for environmental management. Efforts continue, encouraged from within and outside.

Objectives

This research seeks to examine accomplishments in Thailand's electronics manufacturing sector (integrated circuits, disk drive sub-assembly, printed circuit boards, etc.) in addressing occupational and community environmental and health concerns, and to identify the influence of various social factors in encouraging such developments. Questions being asked include: What environment-related changes in technologies and practices have been adopted by electronics manufacturing firms in Thailand? What roles do transnational and domestic corporations, government regulation, community and employee advocacy play in such developments? What efforts continue? What challenges remain?

Research

Efforts are being undertaken to understand the structure and dynamics of Thailand's electronics manufacturing sector as a whole, and of leading firms within it. The project is in a preliminary, exploratory stage. Preliminary field research commenced in May 1998, in and around Bangkok and on Thailand's eastern seaboard, and continued in May/June 2000 with follow-up research in Bangkok and new investigations in northern Thailand.

Contact was made in 1998 with leading electronics firms in Thailand, and with local and international organizations working with those firms in environmental management, including the Federation of Thai Industries/Industrial Environmental Management (FTI/IEM) program, the Thailand Environmental Institute (TEI), and the United Nations Environment Programme/Network of Industrial Environmental Management (UNEP/NIEM). Several manufacturing facilities were visited and interviews conducted with firm, governmental, IGO and NGO representatives. In 2000, earlier manufacturing site visits were followed up and a first look wsa taken at electronics production in northern Thailand.

(In an effort to distribute economic development throughout the country, Thailand has established regionally differentiated minimum wages in relationship to distance from Bangkok – areas further from Bangkok have the lowest required minimum wage. In electronics manufacturing, some of the more labor-intensive assembly operations therefore have been established in northern Thailand, one of the areas with the lowest allowable minimum wages. Along with Bangkok and the eastern seaboard, northern Thailand is one of the primary location of electronics manufacturing in the country.)

Principal investigator

David A. Sonnenfeld, Ph.D., is currently Assistant Professor of Sociology, Washington State University. He is an active member and past officer of the American Sociological Association’s Section on Environment and Technology, and has conducted research in Southeast Asia since 1993. In conjunction with this study, Sonnenfeld was Visiting Research Fellow at the Chulalongkorn University Social Research Center (CUSRI) in 1996, 1998, and 2000, and S.V. Ciriacy-Wantrup Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley from 1998-2000. His other research has focused on adoption of environmental technologies in the pulp and paper industries of Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand; and on environmental concerns in electronics manufacturing in California's Silicon Valley.

Partners in the larger, collaborative study include scholars at Chulalongkorn and Chiang Mai Universities in Thailand; the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS) at the National University of Malaysia (UKM); the Center for Environmental Technology and Management (CENTEMA) at Van Lang University, Viet Nam; and the Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

Contact:

David A. Sonnenfeld, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Sociology
Washington State University
2710 University Drive
Richland, WA 99352-1671
USA
Tel: +1 509 372 7375
Fax: +1 509 372 7100
E-mail:
Homepage: http://puyallup.tricity.wsu.edu/~sonn