By David Charles
The IT industry is founded on systematic exploitation, from the mining of raw materials right through to the way we dispose of our old technology. Why is the industry so exploitative? The usual hoary reason: profit. Companies don’t pay sufficient attention to the ethical consequences of their entire supply chain or the life cycle of their products because that would be too costly.
Regina Joschika is a consultant for Clean-IT, who campaign for fair working conditions in the global computer industry. She outlines the three key features of this exploitative system. First is the demand for fast and inexpensive technology. The lifespan of a computer is much shorter in 2014 than it was in the 1990s. Back then, according to Regina, you would expect to keep your PC for seven years. Now she says that the average life cycle of a computer is just two years; we are now living in a culture of regular technology upgrades. These regular upgrades deliver rapidly decreasing improvements in technology for the user, but the IT industry relies upon them for their annual profits.
This shortened lifespan is a concern because the amount of raw materials required to produce a computer is truly shocking. According to research by the United Nations University, it takes 240 kilograms of fossil fuels, 22 kilograms of chemicals and 1,500 kilograms of water to make one desktop PC. Furthermore, countries in the global south are richest in these resources, but they are not the ones overwhelmingly profiting from their exploitation.
The second key feature of the IT industry’s exploitative system is the complexity of its supply chains. Unlike chocolate or clothes, IT products are made up of many tiny items. In a computer, hundreds of companies will contribute to the supply chain for a product that is eventually labelled “Apple” or “Dell”. Most IT companies simply don’t know the set up of their entire supply chain because it is so complex. This means that they can’t control environmental abuses and worker exploitation.
At the start of the supply chain, the extraction of raw materials for the electronics industry is highly dangerous. The mining workforce is often not well-informed and not protected, leading to many deaths from exposure to toxicity or from mine collapses. In some countries, children work in the mines. During the next stage in the supply chain, work in electronics factories is often inhumane. Workers are forced by low wages, the threat of lay-offs or worse to work unpaid overtime or overnight. In many countries where these IT products are built there are no trade unions or union activity is restricted. The majority of workers don’t know their rights. Work in the computer industry is also dangerous. During soldering, for example, toxic chemicals are released which can burn skin.
Finally, we come to the third key feature of the IT industry’s exploitative system: disposal. An estimated fifty million tonnes of e-waste is generated every year. Two thirds of this is not disposed of correctly or recycled – computers are full of valuable input material that could be reused. Most of this waste is toxic, with tragic consequences for the environment and the communities on whom it is dumped, often in the global south, where there is not the expertise to handle it properly, leaving children to exploit the dumps for things to sell.
Regina ends by demanding that we pay more attention to human rights: they must prevail over profitability. In 2012, Apple were forced to join the Fair Labor Association after a public relations disaster in the wake of a New York Times article concerning labour violations in China, but abuses in their factories persist. In July, China Labor Watch accused one of Samsung’s suppliers of using child labour. We must do more.
We can increase pressure on these companies through raising awareness (Just by reading this – well done!) and by using our purchasing power to force change. We can start by using the work of Electronics Watch, the world’s first independent monitoring organisation for labour rights in the electronics industry. We, as citizens, must begin to take responsibility when buying our computers, smartphones and other technological miracles. Starting, perhaps, with the fair mouse.