Human Rights, War — and Your Gadgets

(Video link for mobile)

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?

Working conditions

“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:

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4 responses to “Human Rights, War — and Your Gadgets

  1. DAMN ! Just trying to keep up with this crazy President and the madd hatter tea party congress wasn’t enough ! I heard about

    the i-phone suicides , now i have an Android . Should i go back to paper cups and a string ? Write to congress about yet another issue ?

    Where do i find the time for all this BS ?

  2. 3/21/2017 Yes, by all means stop the exploitation in Conflict Products of others in any venue including spying and surveillance. There is a missile designed to home in upon a specific phone number anywhere in the world and immediately terminate the user. See various versions of the movie, “Bourne Identity”.

  3. This article has really given me enlightenment on how our technology purchases are affecting the lives of so many people who can barely afford to feed themselves. Seeing the conditions that those people work in just to gather small fragments of the materials needed to make the millions of dollars worth of technology we all use everyday makes me feel so saddened. After seeing this I vow to do everything in my power to only support and purchase technology that is conflict free and that gives back to the countries to improve their working and living conditions.

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