No matter where you are, the chances of seeing someone on their cellphone is quite probable. As people transverse their communities, their cellphones are demanding user’s attentions. Our complete society has become transfixed, and I often wonder at what cost?
Adam Greenfield, author of Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life describes in great detail how the cellphone has completely transformed the sociology of humans, and explores how cellphone manufacturing is an often overlooked and dangerous world, especially in the Silicon Valley of China, Shenzen.
Shenzen was a small fishing village, and now has become a sprawling manufacturing city, with massive sky scrapers, and a technology heart. The city was transformed in the late 1970’s with a rapid economic development. Many technology factories are located in Shenzhen, such as DJI, Huawei, and Tencent. The city is home to many wealthy people, but is also home to a large population of low skill workers.
If you wonder why America is not the manufacturing capital of the world, many would say that it’s because American labor is expensive. According to the Economics and Statistics Administration, American labor is 93% higher than the rest of the world, and when to compared to Chinese labor, the wages are staggering.
I often wonder if Americans actually know where and how their cellphones are manufactured. American assume everything is made in China, but I wonder if attitudes would change if they knew the human impact of technology manufacturing. Most of these cellphones are constructed in large factories, often at the hands of thousands of low income workers.
“The jobs pay low wages, below the minimum considered necessary to sustain life (the minimum wage in Shenzhen is approximately ¥2,200 per month, or roughly $330; around double that amount is required to survive).”Julie Green, The Condition of Working Class in Shenzen
“These factories operate under circumstances that are troubling at best. Hours are long; the work is numbingly repetitive, produces injuries at surreal rates, and often involves exposure to toxic chemicals. Wages are low and suicide rates among the workforce are distressingly high.”Adam Greenfield, Radical Technologies
In the video above, Zang describes the practice of installing netting and and cages installed on windows to prevent workers from committing suicide. I can’t even begin to Imagine working at a place so bad, that many people were attempting to end their lives from working at the company. It’s just heart breaking.
It gets worse
The story behind what goes into cellphones is even more disturbing. Cellphones are mostly constructed of raw materials that are dug up from the ground. One of more important materials, cobalt, used in the lithium batteries of cellphones, is mostly dug up by child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nearly 40,000 child miners are supplying the world’s largest tech companies with cobalt.
“Many children we spoke to told us that they were frequently ill. Inhaling cobalt dust can cause hard metal lung disease – a potentially fatal condition. Skin contact with cobalt can cause dermatitis – a chronic rash. Yet the children and other miners have neither masks nor gloves to protect them.”Amnesty International
In December, Apple, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla were named in a lawsuit in December of 2019, but have since asked the judge to vacate the lawsuit, arguing that they do not own or operate any cobalt mines, and thus can’t be responsible for the practice. They did disavow the practice of child labor.
A Hard Look in the Mirror
Technology makers have violated many human rights violations when manufacturing their products. Yet, cellphone users are wistfully blind, impervious to realizing the horrors of cellphone manufacturing. I get the sense that most Americans simply won’t care, because it’s not happening directly to them, and across the globe. Even in our own country, Americans are apathetic to human rights violations practiced in our own home. A recent study suggests Americans are split on the practice of family separation at the US-Mexico Border, a practice with dire impacts to children, reported by the Human Rights Watch. Even recently, news reports allege US Immigration and Customs Enforcement forced hysterectomies on detained families at the US-Mexico border. The response from the US public has been quite muted, and it’s just another day in America.
Even equipped with this knowledge, are Americans willing to stop purchasing new cell phones? Will Americans fight for change in foreign labor practices? Will big tech companies adjust their manufacturing practices, adjusting their profits to compensate workers fully? Doubtful.
As one American traveler, who recently moved to Shenzhen, and toured a poor neighborhood full of possible factory workers, put it:
“We kind of ventured into… where behind the market where they all live. And that was really cool... because you can live in a super modern place, and a more rundown area for a lot cheaper.”Poppy Popescu, Where’s Poppy
Where has our empathy gone?
Later in the video the author laments how “cool” the poor neighborhood is, because they are hanging their clothes to dry on utility wires. I don’t many people that would identify poor people’s lifestyle as “cool.”
I am part of the problem. I am someone that uses and has purchased many technology devices including a Mavic Pro Drone, manufactured in one Shenzhen’s technology factories. I was blind to the practices that manufactured these devices, and took everything for granted.
I cannot look at my phone the same way anymore. Instead of the fun device that has connected me to the world, I cannot get the images of Chinese workers and Congolese children risking their lives to construct this device. I often wonder how many people were injured, became ill, or committed suicide for this one device. I then think of the millions of devices across the world. I feel horrible that my participation in American consumerism lead to the demise of innocent workers across the globe.