Author: Peter Beattie (Ultra Group). 

Topic: Dealing with contracts or subcontracts with potential slave or forced labour. 

Engineering disciplines: Manufacturing; Engineering business. 

Ethical issues: Social responsibility; Human rights; Risk. 

Professional situations: Legal implications; Company/organisational reputation; Conflicts with leadership/management. 

Educational level: Beginner. 

Educational aim: Practising Ethical Reasoning: the application of critical analysis to specific events in order to evaluate and respond to problems in a fair and responsible way. 

 

Learning and teaching notes: 

This case study puts students in the shoes of an engineer who is required to select a subcontractor to manufacture systems and parts. There are stipulations around who can be selected, among which are legal and ethical concerns around  suspicions of slavery or forced labour. The engineer must navigate communication with both their supervisors and their potential subcontractor, and ultimately justify their decision.  

This case study addresses two of the themes from the Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes fourth edition (AHEP4): The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37. 

The case is presented in three parts. If desired, a teacher could use the Summary and Part one in isolation, but Parts two and three enable additional professional situations to be brought into consideration. The case study allows teachers the option to stop at multiple points for questions and/or activities as desired.  

Learners have the opportunity to: 

Teachers have the opportunity to: 

 

Learning and teaching resources: 

Professional organisations: 

Government sites: 

Global development institutions: 

NGOs: 

Educational institutions: 

 

Summary: 

Autonomous Vehicle Corporation (AVC) has recently been awarded a contract to provide a bespoke design unmanned air vehicle to India. AVC is a UK certified B Corp that prides itself on maintaining the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. 

A stipulation of the newly awarded contract is that at least 30% of the contract value is spent on the manufacture of sub-systems and parts from subcontractors based in India. AVC is responsible for identifying and contracting these suppliers. 

After many years working as a Systems Engineer for AVC, you have been selected as the Lead Engineer for the project, responsible for the selection of the Indian suppliers. You are aware from your initial research of reports regarding slave and forced labour in the region’s manufacturing industry and are concerned that this situation might affect the project and the company. Additionally, you would personally feel uncomfortable knowing that you might contract a supplier who engaged in those practices. 

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Activity: To consider how AVC might be impacted from engaging a supplier that utilises slave or forced labour, chart out the viewpoints of different stakeholders, such as customers, investors, other suppliers, communities, and employees. 

2. Discussion: Are there other factors besides ethical considerations that may influence your selection of supplier? What are these?  

3. Discussion: How would you weigh the importance of ethical considerations, such as the use of slave or forced labour, against the other factors identified in the previous question? What information or resources might you use in guiding your weighting of these considerations? 

4. Activity: Contrast the UK Engineering Council’s code of ethics with the Engineering Council of India’s Code of Ethics. How do the two differ? Which code should you be primarily guided by in this situation? Why? How might cultural expectations and norms influence what is seen as ethical?  

 

Dilemma – Part one: 

One supplier you are considering is Quality Electronics Manufacturing Pvt. Ltd. (QEM), a company based outside Naya Raipur in one of India’s poorest provinces. During a video call, QEM’s managing director assures you that they comply with a strict code of ethics and conduct all recruitment through a carefully selected list of brokers and agencies. He tells you that QEM sources raw materials from around the world, and none of their suppliers have ever been convicted of any offences relating to slavery. He invites you to tour their factory when you are in the country next month and will personally escort you to answer any questions you may have. 

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Activity: Does anything you have heard give you cause for concern regarding the risk of slave or forced labour at QEM in particular? Research this issue from the perspective of various sources, such as investigative journalism, academic papers, government reports, and industry publications. Do their conclusions align or differ in any significant ways? Are there any gaps in knowledge that these sources haven’t adequately covered?  

2. Discussion: QEM mentions that they source raw materials from around the world. The reality of modern supply chains is that they often involve multiple complex layers of subcontractors. Does AVC have an ethical duty to consider the whole supply chain? Would this be the same if AVC were further down the supply chain? If AVC were further down the supply chain, would they have to consider the upstream elements of the supply chain? What are the business implications of considering an entire supply chain? 

3. Activity: List possible contextual risk factors and potential indicators of slave and forced labour. Which are present in the case of QEM? 

4. Activity and discussion: Create a set of questions you wish to answer during your visit to QEM to help assess the risk that they are engaged in the use of slave or forced labour. How will you get this information? Who will you need to talk to? What evidence would you expect to see and collect? To practise business communication, students could draft a memo to their supervisor explaining the situation and outlining their proposed course of action.  

 

Dilemma – Part two: 

During your visit to QEM’s factory, you meet with workers at all levels and you review QEM’s policies and procedures. You identify some potential risk factors that could indicate QEM is using forced labour in its workforce. You raise this with QEM’s managing director, but he responds indignantly, “QEM creates good jobs for our workers and without us they would not be able to feed their families. Your contract would allow us to sustain those jobs and create many more for the local community.” 

You know that QEM is the lowest cost supplier for the work you want them to undertake, and you are under pressure to keep budgets down. You have no conclusive evidence that QEM uses forced labour. You also know that the alternative suppliers you could use are all based in regions with high employment, which means the risk of not being able to staff your work (resulting in schedule delays) is high.  

Upon your return to the UK, your project manager calls you into her office and tells you she needs your decision on whether to utilise QEM by the end of the week. 

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Activity: Conduct a risk analysis that identifies what might be the impact of not using QEM and what might be the impact of using QEM. 

2. Debate: Do you use QEM as one of your suppliers? Why, or why not? You may wish to consider your answer using the lens of uncertainty and risk. 

3. Discussion: What actions could you put in place with QEM to reduce the incidence/risk of slave or forced labour in its workforce? Which of these would you recommend, and which would you require, QEM to implement as part of contracting with them? How would you enforce them, and what evidence of them being successfully implemented would you need? 

 

Dilemma – Part three – Postscript:

If you chose to use QEM: It is now two years after you subcontracted QEM. An investigation by an NGO has uncovered the rampant use of slave and forced labour within the global electronics manufacturing industry by companies with B-Corp status. AVC is named as one of the perpetrators, and a story about workers at QEM is scheduled to run in a leading tabloid newspaper tomorrow morning. AVC has called an emergency press conference to give its side of the story.  

If you chose not to use QEM: The following week, your project manager calls you into her office again. She tells you that she has just stepped out of a meeting with the board, and they are deeply concerned about spiralling costs on your project. In particular, they are concerned that you rejected QEM’s proposal in favour of another supplier who is more than twice as expensive. You have been asked to present your reasoning to the board when they reconvene shortly.  

 

Optional STOP for activity:

1. Roleplay either the press conference or the board meeting and defend your decision. 

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Case enhancement: Water wars: managing competing water rights

Activity: Role-play the council meeting, with students playing different characters representing different perspectives.

Author: Cortney Holles (Colorado School of Mines, USA).

 

Overview:

This enhancement is for an activity found in the Dilemma Part two, Point 6 section: “Role-play the council meeting, with students playing different characters representing different perspectives.” Below are several prompts for discussion questions and activities that can be used. Each prompt could take up as little or as much time as the educator wishes, depending on where they want the focus of the discussion to be.

 

Prompts for questions:

After discussing the case in class, and completing the stakeholder mapping activity (Dilemma Part one, Point 4 – repeated below) from the Water Wars case study, this lesson guides teachers through conducting a role-play of the council meeting scenario.

1. Discuss the stakeholder mapping activity: Who are all the characters in the scenario? What are their positions and perspectives? How can you use these perspectives to understand the complexities of the situation more fully?

2. To prepare for the council meeting role-play activity, assign students in advance to take on different stakeholder roles (randomly or purposefully), or let them self-assign based on their interests.  Roles can include any of the following:

Suggestions from Stakeholder mapping activity:

Additional stakeholders to consider:

3. Before the class session in which the role-play will occur, students should research their stakeholder to get a sense of their values and motivations in regard to the case. Where no information is available, students can imagine the experiences and perspectives of the stakeholder with the goal of articulating what the stakeholder values and what motivates them to come to the council meeting to be heard on this issue. Students should prepare some statements about the stakeholder position on the water use by DSS, what the stakeholder values, and what the stakeholder proposes the solution should be. Students assigned to be council members will prepare for the role-play by learning about the conflict and writing potential questions they would want to ask of the stakeholders representing different views on the conflict.

4. In class, students prepare to role-play the council meeting by first connecting with others in the same stakeholder role (if applicable – you may have few enough students to have only one student assigned to a stakeholder) and deciding who can speak (you may want to require each student to speak or ask that one person be nominated to speak on behalf of the stakeholder group).

5. As the session begins, remind students to jot down notes from the various perspectives’ positions so there can be a debrief conversation at the end.  Challenge students to consider their personal biases and position at the outset and reflect on those positions and biases at the end of the council meeting. If they were a lead member of the council, what solution would they propose or vote for?

6. As the Council Meeting begins, the teacher should act as a moderator to guide students through the session. First the teacher will briefly highlight the issue up for discussion, then pass it to the students representing the Council members.  Council members will open the meeting with their description of the matter at hand between DSS and other local parties. They set the tone for the meeting with a call for feedback from the community members. The teacher can help the Council members call up the stakeholders in turn. Each stakeholder group will have a chance to state their argument, values, and reasons for or against DSS’ water use.  Each stakeholder will have an opportunity to suggest a proposed solution and Council members can engage in discussion with each stakeholder to clarify anything about their position that was unclear.

7. At the end of the meeting, the council members privately confer and then publicly vote on a resolution for the community.  All students, no matter their role, end the class by reflecting on the outcome and their original position on the case. Has anything shifted in their position or rationale after the council meeting? Why or why not?

8. The whole class could then engage in a discussion about the outcome of the council meeting. Teachers could focus on an analysis of how the process went, a discussion about the persuasiveness of different values and positions, and/or an exploration of the internal thinking students went through to arrive at their positions.

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Authors: Professor Dawn Bonfield MBE (Aston University);Professor Sarah Hitt SFHEA (NMITE); Dr Darian Meacham (Maastricht University); Dr Nik Whitehead (University of Wales Trinity Saint David); Dr Matthew Studley (University of the West of England, Bristol); Professor Mike Bramhall (TEDI-London); Isobel Grimley (Engineering Professors’ Council).

Topic: Data centres’ impact on sustainable water resources.

Engineering disciplines: Civil engineering, Electronic engineering.

Ethical issues: Sustainability, Respect for environment, Future generations, Risk, Societal impact.

Professional situations: Law or policy, Communication, Integrity.

Educational level: Intermediate.

Educational aim: Practise ethical judgement. Ethical Judgment is the activity of thinking about whether something has a moral attribute. Judgments involve reaching moral decisions and providing the rationale for those decisions.

 

Learning and teaching notes:

This case involves a situation where environmental damage may be occurring despite the mechanism causing this damage being permissible by law. The engineer at this centre of the case is to represent the company that is responsible for the potential damage, at a council meeting. It requires the engineer to weigh up various harms and goods, and make a decision that could seriously impact their own job or career. There is also a section at the end of this case study that contains technical information providing further details about the water cooling of ICT equipment.

This case study addresses two of AHEP 4’s themes: The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37.

The dilemma in this case is presented in two parts. If desired, a teacher can use Part one in isolation, but Part two develops and complicates the concepts presented in Part one to provide for additional learning. The case allows teachers the option to stop at multiple points for questions and/or activities as desired.

Students have the opportunity to:

Teachers have the opportunity to:

 

Learning and teaching resources:

 

Summary:

The company Data Storage Solutions (DSS) has built a large data centre on land that was historically used for agriculture and owned by a farming operation. DSS was incorporated as a subsidiary of the farming company so that it could retain the water rights that were attached to the property. This ensured access to the large amount of water needed to cool their servers. This centre manages data from a variety of sources including the local hospital and university.

When the property was used as a farm, the farming operation never used its full allocation of water. Now, the data centre always uses the maximum amount legally allotted to it. For the rainy half of the year, this isn’t a problem. However, in more arid months, the nearby river almost runs dry, resulting in large volumes of fish dying. Other farmers in the area have complained that the water level in their wells has dropped, making irrigation much more expensive and challenging.

 

Dilemma – Part one:

You are a civil engineer working for DSS and have been requested by your boss to represent the company at a forthcoming local council meeting where the issue will be discussed. Your employer is sending you to justify the company’s actions and defend them against accusations of causing an environmental hazard in the local area which is reducing the water table for farmers and affecting local biodiversity. Your boss has told you that DSS has a right to the water and that it does not intend to change its behaviour. This meeting promises to be a contentious one as the local Green party and farmers’ union have indicated that they will be challenging the company’s water usage. How will you prepare for the meeting?

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: Personal values – What is your initial position on the issue? Do you see anything wrong with DSS’s water use? Why, or why not?

2. Discussion: Professional responsibilities – What ethical principles and codes of conduct are relevant to this situation?

3. Activity: Define and identify the relevant data you should compile to take to the meeting. What information do you need in order to be prepared?

4. Activity: Stakeholder mapping – Who are all the characters in the scenario? What are their positions and perspectives? How can you use these perspectives to understand the complexities of the situation more fully? Examples include:

Data Storage Solutions

5. Activity: Undertake a technical activity such as civil and / or electronic engineering related to the measurement of stream flow and calculating data centre cooling needs.

 

Dilemma – Part two:

As you prepare for the meeting, you reflect on several competing issues. For instance, you are an employee of DSS and have a responsibility to represent its interests, but can see that the company’s actions are environmentally harmful. You appreciate that the data centre is vital for the local community, including the safe running of schools and hospitals, and that its operation requires sufficient water for cooling. Your boss has told you that you must not admit responsibility for any environmental damage or biodiversity loss. You also happen to know that a new green battery plant is planning to open nearby that will create more data demand and has the potential to further increase DSS’s water use. You know that obtaining water from other sources will be costly to DSS and may not be practically possible, let alone commercially viable. What course of action will you pursue?

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Activity: Debate what course of action you should take. Should you take the company line despite knowing about the environmental impacts? Should you risk your reputation or career? What responsibilities do you have to fellow employees, the community, and the environment?

2. Activity: Risk analysis – What are the short- and long- term burdens and benefits of each course of action? Should environmental concerns outweigh others? Is there a difference between the environment locally and globally?

3. Activity and discussion: Read Sandra Postel’s case for a Water Ethic, and consider New Zealand’s recent legislation that gives a rainforest the same rights as a human. With this in mind, does the stream have a right to thrive? Do the fish have a right to a sustainable environment? Are humans ultimately at risk here, or just the environment? Does that answer change your decision? Why?

4. Activity: Prepare a statement for the council meeting. What will you argue?

5. Activity: The students should interrogate the pros and cons of each possible course of action including the ethical, the practical, the cost, the local relationship and the reputational damage implications. They should decide on their own preferred course of action and explain why the balance of pros and cons is preferable to other options. The students may wish to consider this from other perspectives, such as:

6. Activity: Role-play the council meeting, with students playing different characters representing different perspectives.

7. Activity: Allow students to reflect on how this case study has enabled them to see the situation from different angles, and whether this has helped them to understand the ethical concerns and come to an acceptable conclusion.

 

Annex – Accompanying technical information:

ICT equipment generates heat and so most devices must have a mechanism to manage their temperature. Drawing cool air over hot metal transfers heat energy to that air, which is then pushed out into the environment. This works because the computer temperature is usually higher than the surrounding air. There are several different mechanisms for data centre cooling, but the general approach involves chillers reducing air temperature by cooling water – typically to 7–10 °C, which is then used as a heat transfer mechanism. Some data centres use cooling towers where external air travels across a wet media so that the water evaporates. Fans expel the hot, wet air and the cooled water is recirculated. Other data centres use adiabatic economisers – where water is sprayed directly into the air flow, or onto a heat exchange surface, thereby cooling the air entering the data centre. With both techniques the evaporation results in water loss. A small 1 MW data centre using one of these types of traditional cooling can use around 25.5 million litres of water per year. Data centre water efficiency deserves greater attention. Annual reports show water consumption for cooling directly paid for by the operator, so there is an economic incentive to increase efficiency. As the total energy share of cooling has fallen with improving PUEs (Power Usage Effectiveness metric), the focus has been on electricity consumption, and so water has been a low priority for the industry. However, the largest contributor to the water footprint of a data centre is electricity generation. Where data centres own and operate the entire facility, there is more flexibility for exploring alternative sources of water, and different techniques for keeping ICT equipment cool.

 

Enhancements:

An enhancement for this case study can be found here.

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

 

Let us know what you think of our website