Dell takes heat for recycling program's labor practices

AUSTIN, TX: Dell's consumer recycling program is continuing to draw fire from a small group of environmentalists, despite the company's conciliatory moves.

AUSTIN, TX: Dell's consumer recycling program is continuing to draw fire from a small group of environmentalists, despite the company's conciliatory moves.

On Saturday Dell wrapped up a tour touting the program, through which consumers can pay to have old computers picked up from their homes. Dell collected more than 750 tons of old computer equipment at local disposal events in 16 cities.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) and the GrassRoots Recycling Network targeted Dell in spring 2002, said Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment. "We want Dell to be the industry leader in recycling as well as sales," Schneider said.

Activists' complaints originally centered on the computer company's use of subcontractor UNICOR, which runs vocational programs in prisons. Both UNICOR and Dell denied activists' claims about workplace safety standards in prisons, and their contention that the use of low-cost inmate labor hinders commercial recycling businesses.

Although the few protesters who showed up at the tour's recycling events didn't stay long, activists did manage to throw cold water on a few of Dell's PR attempts. When the company announced a partnership with the National Recycling Coalition in late June, the SVTC countered with a report negatively comparing a UNICOR recycling facility with one used by Hewlett-Packard.

Dell then issued a press release announcing deals with two private-sector contractors, and corporate PR director Barry French acknowledged that the company would end

its relationship with UNICOR within 60 days.

"As a company with direct relationships, we are always listening to our customers and responsible stakeholders. But, to be very clear, this was a business decision based on improving the costs of the commercial recycling industry," French said. "We do things for our customers, not for special interests."

Despite Dell severing ties with UNICOR, activists say they still plan to protest at the company's annual shareholder meeting this Friday.

"Their decision to step away from prison labor is a positive step, but we sort of see that as first base," Schneider said.

The emphasis on labor issues raised questions about union backing, and SVTC program director Sheila Davis, acknowledged peripheral union involvement.

"These groups are definitely the vocal minority [among environmental groups]," said Kevin Tuerff, president of Tuerff-Davis EnviroMedia which, with GCI, is supporting Dell's recycling program.

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