Center for Peace, Democracy and Development

The Human Costs of Must Have Technologies

by

Jacqueline Millette

Are the benefits from technology worth the price paid by the individuals on the production line? Are we as consumers to blame for the unethical and inhumane treatment of those who mine the resources to run our phones or those who seal closed the boxes that hold our new computers? With the continued interconnectedness of the world, more and more people are seeking out the newest technologies to maintain their connections. Whether it is a new cell-phone, new computer, or new tablet, as consumers we are hardwired to purchase and upgrade our technology on a regular basis. Sometimes we scoff at the price of these products and other times we don’t even look at the price tag, but what about the price paid by those who manufacture these technologies?

Recent media has highlighted the issues with the manufacturing of popular technology in China, specifically in FoxConn factories. In September there were news reports of riots in one of the FoxConn factories in Taiyuan, China, a riot that was partially fueled by working 10 – 12 hour days on assembly lines, being crowded into dormitories where 8 – 10 people share a single room, and wages that leave the workers barely able to make ends meet. In 2010, there were 18 attempted suicides that resulted in 14 deaths in FoxConn factories in China. These suicide attempts were reported as being fueled by the excessive overtime, lack of overtime pay, lack of reporting accidents in the workplace, and the abusive style of management. All of these workers who attempted suicide were between the ages of 17 and 25. When new products are slated to hit the markets, the conditions in these factories are intensified. With more demand from the consumers, the factory workers have to work even harder and longer hours to meet the global demands, intensifying the inhumane and unethical working conditions that have led to these riots and suicides. These stories examining the suffering of the factory workers have been covered in recent media, but as consumers, have we done anything about it?

Not only is there clearly a problem in the manufacturing of these technologies, but the inhumanity even goes all the way to the extraction of the minerals used to make these products. Two weeks ago, I did not know what coltan was, where it came from, or what it was used for. Now I know that coltan is a black metallic ore that is found primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and when refined is able to store an electrical charge, therefore a vital element found in cell-phones. Most of the mining and extraction is done small scale and by children who can fit easily in and out of the makeshift mines and craters. These children forego school to mine coltan and face dangers of collapsing mines, exploitation, and very low reimbursement for the coltan they find. The extraction and mining of coltan in the DRC has also fueled major conflicts and wars as neighboring countries move in to smuggle coltan out of the country and sell to the manufacturers of cellphones. As the technology boom continues, the price of coltan remains high, ensuring that there will be continued conflict in this region as everyone fights to gain control of the coltan supply.

Clearly a change needs to happen, but where does this change need to originate from to be successful? Does it originate with the consumers? Or with the workers in the FoxConn factories? Or the coltan miners in the DRC?  Perhaps this change is coming through outside forces such as United States policies. Both presidential candidates in the 2012 presidential election spoke of China and issues of manufacturing quite frequently. Mitt Romney spoke of holding China accountable for ‘cheating’ and to level the playing field so all countries have a fair chance at employing this labor, in a sense, bringing the jobs back to the United States. Barack Obama noted that these manufacturing jobs are not going to come back to the United States because they are low skill, low wage jobs that Americans do not want. Unless there is a drastic change in the manufacturing sector, these jobs will stay in China where labor is cheap and cost of production is low. However if we see these changes in the mining of coltan and the production of the final products to follow more humane and ethical practices including higher wages, it would most likely lead to higher final costs of the product. Is this why as consumers we chose to look away so that we do not have to face an increase in the cost of our favorite products? Do we practice ‘ignorance is bliss’ so that we can say we didn’t know? Do we as consumers care about the factories or the mining, or are we happy as long as we get our products? I write this from my MacBook while listening to music on my iPhone, so I am just as guilty and at fault as the rest, which leads me to wonder what it would take to convince myself and other consumers to stop buying products made under these conditions.

Jacqueline Millette is a graduate student in the International Relations Program at University of Massachusetts Boston.

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