iPhonesIf these iPhones aren’t the latest model, then they’re already iHasBeens.Photo: techburstI spend my days teasing out the trouble that lurks behind the towering bounty of our food system. How is it that Americans can get a McDonald’s “McDouble” (a double cheeseburger) for a dollar? In the time it takes you to eat it, I can give you a bite or two of the social and ecological ruin that accompanies that burger. Or you can just scroll through my archive.

While writing about food politics on my brutalist Dell “Latitude” laptop, I often dream of a sleek new MacBook Air or MacBook Pro. And as someone who reads a lot of online news for my job, I kind of want an iPad. I also wouldn’t mind trading in my perfectly serviceable 3G iPhone for the new-and-improved 4G. (That flash would really improve my Tom’s Kitchen photos, wouldn’t it?) Honestly, it’s mainly lack of funds that holds me back from these purchases.

In other words, like a lot of folks, I think hard about where my food comes from, but spare very few thoughts about where my gadgets come from. Still, every once in a while, I come across an item like this post by Elizabeth Grossman, on the excellent public-health blog The Pump Handle, that really makes me pause.

No gadget is an island

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Grossman filed a report from the Indonesian island of Batam, which lies just across the strait from Singapore, a major manufacturing center of electronic gadgets and components. If U.S. high-tech companies have outsourced manufacturing to countries like Singapore, then places like Batam are where Singapore-based companies send their labor-intensive, highly toxic work. Writes Grossman:

Thanks to much of the island’s designation as a special economic zone beginning in 1989, Batam has been experiencing explosive growth. In the 1970s, the island’s population was under 10,000. Today it has soared to about 900,000 and continues to grow. The industry here is primarily electronics — shipbuilding and general manufacturing are also major industries — with Batam’s workers providing inexpensive labor for assembly line production for Singapore-based operations of international companies. Panasonic, Epson, Sanyo, Siemens, Flextronics, Infineon, Teac, Schneider, Unisem, and Philips are some of the names we see on factory buildings in the Batamindo Industrial Park, one of the island’s largest industrial parks. The website for its Singapore-based developer notes that more than 60,000 people work for the companies located here.

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The food and consumer-tech industries have similar challenges: keeping the end product reasonably cheap while maintaining brisk profitability. That means holding down worker wages.

“[U]nions are the exception throughout the electronics industry worldwide,” reports Grossman, “a legacy of the historical anti-union bias of the microchip industry.” Remarkably, the workers at Batamindo Industrial Park are unionized, but all is not well. Grossman met with union workers and heard their stories. Here’s a sampling:

One union member describes his hearing loss after working at the same factory for ten years. He’s had to go to Jakarta (about 540 miles away) for treatment, he says, showing us copies of his audiometry tests. Another, who’s worked for Varta for 15 years making nickel metal hydride batteries, tells us of colleagues suffering from cancer. Yet another union member tells us about co-workers who’ve been diagnosed with lung disease[; the] official diagnosis is TB — “from printed circuit board cutting dust.”

Several people mention women’s reproductive health concerns, among them menstrual problems, miscarriages, birth defects, and quadruplets. One man puts his hand on his wife’s shoulder and tells us of her breast cancer. She’s spent 15 years working in a plant assembling lithium batteries. No one knows if there’s a connection, but when pressed, the company management paid for her treatment.

If all of this sounds vague and anecdotal, it has mainly to do with lack of resources for research, not the lack of basis for concern. What government or corporation has the incentive to study the health effects of working in Indonesia’s technology manufacturing sector? The governments of the United States, Singapore, and Indonesia all benefit from strong electronics sales — think tax revenues and GDP growth — as do the companies that manufacture and market gadgets. A country with a robust public healthcare system might have an incentive to crack down on industries that routinely sicken workers; but Indonesia has no such thing. So to figure out how the workers who make our gadgets are faring, we have to rely on anecdotes. And those anecdotes are dismal.

Sour grapes — and iPads

Grossman’s report got me thinking about those quickly forgotten stories last spring about a spate of suicides in China’s electronics sweatshops. After re-reading this May 2010 Der Spiegel piece on the topic, I feel like Aesop’s fox regarding the grapes he could not reach: even if I could afford an iPad or the latest iPhone, I don’t think I want one anymore.

The article focuses on a vast factory in Shenzhen, China, where 300,000 workers crank out products for Foxconn, a Taiwan-based company that assembles gadgets for Apple, Nintendo, and Dell.

Get this:

Ma Xiangqian, 18, was part of this peculiar Foxconn [manufacturer of the iPad] world, where everything is numbered: buildings, machines, component parts, finished products and, of course, people. For wages of up to 1,940 yuan per month (€230, or $285), the young man from Henan province spent his 12-hour shifts shoving plastic pieces into a machine that formed casings for Apple computers. Then he went home to sleep with nine colleagues in a room of one of the many dormitory blocks on the factory complex.

To earn these pathetic wages of little more than a dollar  ten dollars [silly math error; see comments] a day, the workers — most of whom come from hundreds of miles away in inland China — eat and sleep under highly regimented conditions on the factory premises, which the company cheekily insists on calling a “campus.” So as not to impede the endless flow of goods leaving the premises and inputs coming in, workers are “allowed to walk alongside each other only in pairs,” Der Spiegel reports. “If there are three of them, they must form a line.” On the factory floor, prevailing conditions would make Orwell (or Chaplin) flinch:

The men and women in white uniform coats and bonnets are forbidden from holding personal conversations. This rule is printed on the flip side of their corporate ID
s. The only sound is a whistle and hiss from the machines where they push green circuit-boards for laptops or credit-card readers. On eight different conveyor belts, they finish work on eight different products for several different world markets.

By the end of May, Der Spiegel reported, no fewer than 10 workers had committed suicide; three more had attempted it unsuccessfully. In response to global outrage over the conditions, Foxconn has bumped up wages and announced plans to build plants in inland China, nearer to workers’ homes. But the U.K. trade journal TechEye points to a report suggesting that the “promised pay rise to … has failed to materialise — indeed, most workers haven’t even been told about it.”

TechEye quotes a European fair-labor activist on the situation, who comments in terms that will be familiar to close watchers of the meat industry:

A brand like Apple has a very high profit margin on hardware: more than 40 percent. But it asks suppliers, which have a much lower profit margin of about 4 percent, to lower production costs. As a result, labour costs are squeezed and workers never get living wages.

Figuring out what to do about our destructive consumer-electronics system is even more vexing than figuring out how to reform our foodways. In food, we can build out alternative production/consumption networks like farmers markets and CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs. By contrast, community-supported, artisanal smart-phone factories are inconceivable. Gadget-making, it turns out, is even more capital-intensive than food production — and then there’s the problem that you can’t just compost your electronic waste. Nor can we, in a digital information age, merely opt out of the system on which I write these words and you read them.

But we can dedicate ourselves to knowing, and not ignoring, the fact that our gadgets, like our food, have a story. And we can reject the planned obsolescence — the lust for the newest and flashiest at the expense of the perfectly useful — that underpins the consumer-tech industry.

Get Off Your Ass opportunity: If you really must buy a new computer, here’s a great roundup of eco-friendly options for your old one (turn your keyboard into a wallet…that will be empty after you upgrade!). Whatever you do, don’t toss that PC or smart phone in the trash: its parts are toxic and carcinogenic. The Environmental Protection Agency has a comprehensive website on it how/where/what companies will safely dispose of your old electronic gear.