What do human rights have to do with our gadgets?
Computers, tablets, smartphones, smart TVs, smart watches — it’s hard to imagine living without our electronic devices. But, this video asks, can we buy these gadgets without exploiting someone in the supply chain?
Right now, the answer is No. Companies are scrambling to provide the newest and best — and cheapest — and in the process, the laborers who make our electronic devices and mine the minerals for their circuit boards are paying a heavy price.
Let’s take a closer look.
The Three Ts
Tin, tantalum and tungsten — they’re called the three Ts, and without them, we wouldn’t have cell phones or computers. One of the main sources for these minerals, along with others used in electronics, is the Congo, where armed militias have been conscripting slave labor for the mines, running protection rackets and using the profits to wage a brutal war on civilians. That’s why the three Ts are also called conflict minerals (look for the words “conflict-free” stamped on boxes in the video). The war in the DRC feeds off our appetite for consumer electronics; your smartphone purchase could be financing guns, mass rape and other atrocities.
A campaign that’s been putting pressure on electronics companies to stop using minerals from the Congo’s killing fields, along with a 2012 SEC ruling that requires U.S. companies to disclose whether their products contain conflict minerals, have had some success. But in August 2015, responding to a challenge by the Association of Manufacturers, a Federal Appeals Court panel threw out that ruling; the full court is currently considering that decision. And besides, disclosure does not amount to a ban; after all, when was the last time you asked whether your phone manufacturer uses conflict minerals?
“Supply Chain Reaction” glosses over the conflict in the DRC, but it does expose the working conditions that miners —40 percent of them children — endure. (Read more in this Daily Mail report.) Further up the production line, in factories, workers are also suffering deplorable conditions. An October 2015 report on an Apple factory in China tells of “Low pay, long hours, unpaid work, poor workplace safety and despicable living conditions,” including overcrowded, bed bug and mold infested dormitories. Another article this year in Wired exposes the dangerous conditions in Chinese electronics factories, where workers are getting sick from constant contact with toxic substances.
What Can We Do?
Shut down production? Toss our smartphones and computers? What can we do? “Supply Chain Reaction” asks Amar Bihde, professor of law and diplomacy at Tufts. In his view, workers in developing countries who are now bearing the brunt of our gadget habit will eventually be better off as safeguards are put in place. But it’s up to us to make sure that happens.
“We all have a responsibility here. We all have a role to play” — Geoffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University
With older Americans among the fastest growing consumer groups for new devices, let’s look at what we can do:
- Read more about the situation in DRC
- Learn which tech companies are moving toward conflict-free electronics (note: this is a 2012 ranking)
- See how various tech companies rank on labor rights in factories and mineral extraction (2014 ranking; scroll to page 4)
- Check out the student-led Conflict Free Campus Initiative
- Follow Fairphone: This entirely conflict-free Android phone will be released in Europe in December 2105. The company is gauging interest in the U.S and might release it here in 2016.
Read the comments under the video on YouTube and join the conversation by scrolling down to the comments section on this page.