Occupational health in the electronic age: disease in the new sweatshop

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Sanjay Basu
Sanjay Basu, MD PhD is a resident physician in the Department of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco. He blogs about the political economy of global health, epidemiology, sociology, economics and much more at EpiAnalysis. @sanjayb493
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When we say our products are made “in China”, what we really should say it that they’re made in Shenzhen–a city in Guangdong Province, just north of Hong Kong. Shenzhen is one of China’s “special economic zones” (SEZs)–754 square miles of industrial space in which foreign corporations are permitted unique rules and regulations, permitting them to run high-throughput factories that currently use 3.3 million people to make products for the Western consumer market. This is where Xboxes and cell phones come from, produced by Chinese contractors like Foxconn (which makes the new iPhone). There is an unusually high rate of suicide in Shenzhen, and in Foxconn factories in particular; behind these suicides are a broader set of public health issues among electronic workers–from those who make the new gadgets, to those who dismantle them after we throw them away.

From T-shirts to MacBooks–the new sweatshop scene

College students first drew attention to the problem of clothing sweatshops by  demanding that several universities (who raise considerable money from selling sweatshirts and hats to sports fans) put their logo on products manufactured under basic fair labor conditions. They created the Worker’s Rights Consortium (WRC) to enforce codes of conduct among factory workers, which several universities agreed to after mass protests in the 1980’s and 90’s. The industry created the Fair Labor Association (FLA) as a looser alternative. But both groups ultimately contributed to the improvement of sweatshop working conditions in places like Cambodia. While famous New York Times columnists like Nicholas Kristof like to say that sweatshops improve economic growth and are better than starvation, further analysis of the historical and economic evidence suggests that this growth really shifts towards workers (rather than their bosses) when accompanied by stronger labor protections and protests, often facilitated by unions. In China, such unionization has begun to strengthen, in spite of dangerous conditions for their development, given government crackdowns.

With the dot-com boom and the resurgence of Apple as a major consumer electronics force, new labor concerns in China and other industrial zones such as the Maquiladora zone in Mexico have been dominated by the production of electronics. Most of us perceive that electronics are produced on quiet, clean assembly lines by robots or special technicians–as depicted in the Intel commercials where workers float around in spacesuits. But the reality is that most components are still assembled by hand, and by migrant workers.

The public health data emerging from studies of workers in this industry suggest that there are three common hazards to the health among these employees: exposure to industrial solvents often used to clean electronics parts; abuses of labor code that lead to overworking and associated stress injuries and mental health problems; and gender-based physical and sexual harassment and abuse on assembly lines supervised by men.

The context of employment

In the context of limited alternative job opportunities, a large unemployed labor pool, and lack of organized labor regulations, there are several accounts that official laws in SEZs and related labor zones do not actually provide wages at the legal minimum and use both child labor and forced short-term contracts to underpay workers. New studies show that this has led to a cycle of food insecurity and further desperation for short-term work, perpetuating the willingness of workers to be employed for substandard wages and excessive overtime. Large manufacturers like Foxconn have found that hiring migrants is particularly advantageous as these workers cannot afford to pay for transportation back home; the company provides them them in dormitories that house up to 400,000 people on any given day. In the setting of daily work, repetitive strain injuries of the hand are thought to be the most common injury. Several factories fail to rotate workers between different types of repetitive duties; rather, they fire workers once their hands are too damaged to continue working, and hire new employees at lower wages, allowing the company to save year-end bonuses and maintain high throughput. Some American corporations like Apple have reported that they inspect these facilities to prevent such abuses, after recent scandals emerged, but the subsequent changes are not clearly disclosed and reports have suggested worsening conditions.

Types of exposures

One of the highest-profile cases involved the use of N-hexane among Apple workers. N-hexane is a solvent that evaporates faster than regular rubbing alcohol, allowing workers to wipe the screens of new gadgets more quickly and speed up the assembly line. However, N-hexane is also a neurotoxin, leading many workers to lose control of their hands and several to report accompanying skin pathologies and leukemias. Over 100 workers were treated and investigative reports indicated that many had been covertly hospitalized while manufacturing iPhones. Other common chemical exposures reported in the public health literature have been inhalation, absorption and ingestion-related diseases and deaths from brominated flame retardantsmercurylead and other toxic metals; perfluorinated compounds; and acids. In the semiconductor industry, women have also been found to have an unusual rate of low birth weight infants and spontaneous abortions for unclear reasons that may be related to heavy metal and organic solvent exposures. Another common exposure is to the solvent glycol ether, which is used to protect chips from light damage. Overexposure to this solvent appears to have been related to inhalation injuries and birth defects. Needless to say, many workers do not receive appropriate protective equipment.

Electronics waste

In our pursuit to always get the latest new device, we throw also away about 50 million tons of electronics every year. A 2011 report from Ghana found over 200,000 tons of electronic waste was exported there that year in exchange for small amounts of cash from garbage contractors who find it cheaper to ship and dump in developing countries than in New Jersey. Because the United States has not ratified the Basel Convention or its Ban Amendment, and has no domestic laws forbidding the export of toxic waste. The UN has predicted a 500% increase in the rate of electronic dumping over the next decade, much of it expected to affect India. Because most of this material is not recycled, the heavy metals in the equipment cause considerable environmental damage. But they also exert a health toll when processed. Much of the material being dumped is burned, releasing toxic fumes with dioxins and furans that are carcinogenic and neurotoxic. Groundwater contamination in these regions has also been recorded, and lead toxicity also appears particularly high.

New initiatives

After suicides among Foxconn workers generated negative publicity for Apple, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) began to publicize its code of conduct, Apple joined the FLA, and inspections and reports about changing factory conditions have proliferated from a number of electronics companies. Some of these events were recently featured in the NPR show “This American Life”, which contains a moving first-person documentary from a reporter who visited Foxconn workers and has his doubts about the scale of improvement (listening to the podcast is worth the time). Electronics recycling may have become more successful, having been mainstreamed into some computer purchase agreements and even appearing into a new campaign from Comedy Central:

Much of the progress that has been possible to document has been facilitated by unions and activist organizations like SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior), who have documented reports from workers and staged direct protests outside factories as well as trying to publicize their efforts in the press (a real challenge in China, where photos of a protest outside an Apple store were re-depicted as a group of consumers pounding on the store glass to get a new phone). In addition to SACOM, other groups that have been facilitating local labor law improvements also include Mexico’s CEREAL (Center for Reflection and Action on Labor Rights), South Korea’s SHARPS (Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry), China’s Labor Watch, and the International Labor Rights Forum. It is difficult to systematically document how well things have progressed in spite of some local successes caused by protests from these groups against specific manufacturers; Greenpeace has created a ranking system of which electronics manufacturers have been using less chemical toxins and generating less electronic waste (according to this ranking, HP and Dell are better than Apple, which in turn is doing better than RIM); but labor practices and workers health are not considered in the ranking. The systematic collection of data is still collected by corporations and consultants, but generally not publicly available. The MakeITFair campaign has initiated some reporting efforts to document abuses not only in Asia and Latin America, but also in emerging industrial sectors of Africa and Eastern Europe.

In general, the public health research world has yet to systematically study many of the factories in which electronics production takes place. But some notable work conducted in the border zone between health, environment and labor studies includes the edited volume Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry and Elizabeth Grossman’s book High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxins and Human Health. As well a studying labor conditions abroad, a growing group of public health advocates have begun to catalog and work for change among migrant laborers in domestic manufacturing and farming sectors, also producing some inspiring changes will hopefully be sustained as further efforts are made towards equitable economic growth policies.

This post first appeared on the blog EpiAnalysis.

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