In recent years, corporations and governments have had their unethical treatment of miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and factory workers in Asia, specifically China, exposed and released to Western audiences. Despite this exposure, the smartphone business in the Western world has maintained its stronghold over consumers. Statistics show that from 2009-2013, owners of smartphones jumped from 5% of the global population to 22% of the global population. This jump saw an increase of 1.3 billion phones made over four years (Business Insider, 2013).
These billions of smartphones rely on specific minerals mined in the Congo in order to function, particularly Coltan ore. Coltan is used as the capacitor for smartphones as it endures electrical charges, allowing devices to become smaller, more complex and versatile. Coltan ore is in rich supply in the Congo, with many of the mines controlled by violent militia groups who take a cut of the sales of Coltan to fund their violence (Foreign Correspondent, 2009).
The Democratic Republic of Congo holds 80% of the world’s supply of Coltan and since the mid-1990s militia groups have used these mines to fund their wars. It is important to note that the issue of exploited minerals from the Congo dates back to colonialism in the late 19th Century to early 20th Century, whereby Belgium mined the Congo for rubber. Western countries have since mined the Congo for diamonds, cobalt, copper, tin etc, maintaining Western control and profiting from their minerals while the people of the Congo fail to benefit from the minerals.
Journalists Suroosh Alvi and Horeb Bulambo investigated East Congo in 2012 to see how the Congolese have been affected by centuries of colonial power. The Congolese government claimed conflict minerals were no longer an issue, however when Alvi and Bulambo went to East Congo, they discovered an active mine owned by a member of the Congo Senate in Kinshasha, DRC, indicating that conflict minerals were still a very real issue in the Congo. Though the conditions of the mine were covered up, it was revealed that children were working daily in it. Militia groups were also still in control of certain areas in the east Congo. One woman from Kinshasha stated, “Here in the cities we can say that the war is over. In the forest, the war is still happening.” (Citizen of DRC, 2012). One of the most malicious militia groups, Mai Mai, label themselves as ‘protectors of the Congolese soil’, which refers to the mines for conflict minerals. The exploitation of minerals from the West has become a factor in the militia groups desire to take control of the Congolese minerals.
It is clear from investigation that conflict minerals are still a major issue in the Congo. However, there has been an increase in moves towards ethical mines, with the Fairphone organising a Fairtrade agreement for minors and in 2010 the U.S. Congress passed a legislation forcing companies to declare their use of conflict minerals. These changes emerged from pressures from NGOs to remove conflict minerals from our electronics and move towards fair trade (VICE, 2012).
Fairphone, a company working towards creating a fair trade phone with conflict-free minerals, works with Solutions network in the Congo to create a conflict-free environment for their workers. Fairphone have directed China to use these conflict-free minerals (AVX capacitors), which are bagged and tagged to make sure the minerals do not fall into the exploitative hands of the rebels and ensure that the workers are being paid and treated ethically. This bagging and tagging allows Fairphone to follow the minerals to China where they are then assembled. Fairphone is currently working towards a conflict-free environment for Chinese workers (Representative for Fairphone, 2013).
Foxconn is a contractor, formed in Taiwan that works for competing phone companies runs the majority of their assembling factories in China. In 2010, ten Chinese Foxconn workers committed suicide due to their harsh work conditions (Hungry Beast). These conditions have been revealed through first hand accounts and journalists inspecting the factories. “Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics” looked at six case studies of workers for electronic factories. These workers had all contracted occupational leukaemia from exposure to unsafe chemicals, predominantly Benzene and N-Hexane. Benzene has been banned in most Western countries for industrial use, yet in China where over 50% of the world’s mobile phones are made, it is used. Chinese government statistics showed that toxic chemicals poison one person every five hours and experts assume this to be higher. There are no Benzene free electronics at the moment. Shek Ping Kwan, Coordinator of Labor Action China, argues that Benzene can be replaced by safer alternatives and that the chemical affects not only the factory workers but also customers who purchase the product (The Human Cost of Electronics, 2014).
The other chemical that is affecting workers is N-Hexane. In 2009, 137 Taiwanese workers for Wintek, a contractor for Apple, were poisoned by N-Hexane. Apple stated that the poisoned workers had recovered, however the workers had later reported that they still needed treatment. Wintek and Apple refused to pay follow up treatment. Heather White, director of “The Human Cost of Electronics” has stated that the government and corporations involved are responsible for exposure to toxic chemicals and work conditions leading workers to commit suicide. The Chinese government is underreporting cases of occupational illnesses thus leading corporations to have a “false sense of security” (White, Sydney Morning Herald, 2014). White also argues that consumers need to be aware of the conditions of these workers. Once consumers are able to understand the true cost of their electronics, White argues that the exploitation could be properly dealt with (Sharma, 2014).
In a 2010 report, Tian Yu, a former worker for Foxconn, described what lead her to attempt suicide after 37 days of employment. Through her account, it is possible to understand the harsh conditions the employees of Foxconn went through. There are twelve different business groups within Foxconn, which compete for the best speed, quality, efficiency and added value with their products. Yu worked 12-hour days with a very limited amount of breaks and unpaid work meetings before and after her shift. Workers were reportedly given specific timeframes to complete tasks, and could risk not getting a break and public humiliation if they failed to meet their demands. Yu recalls posters on the wall stating, “Value efficiency every minute, every second. Achieve goals or the sun will no longer rise. The devil is in the details” and “Grow, thy name is suffering. A harsh environment is a good thing. Execution is the integration of speed, accuracy and precision.” During breaks, conversation amongst workers was prohibited and they were heavily monitored through CCTV and security personnel. Yu’s isolation from family and friends, the harsh work regime she had to endure, the punishment that took place were she fall from ‘standard’ requirements and finally the company’s inability to pay her lead to Tian Yu’s decision to commit suicide.
Foxconn’s response to the series of suicides was to have them sign ‘consent letters’ to remove liability from the company and place responsibility on the individual. This was later dropped following intense criticism from activists in China, such as SACOM. Foxconn also placed safety nets under roofs, next to corridors and locked wire covered windows in the worker’s dorms (Chan, Yu, 2013). Foxconn and the Chinese government stated they would work together to ensure suicide rates would decrease. However, since said statement, further discussion on plans for change has not been disclosed and Chinese officials have banned negative attention on Foxconn. “Despite legal reforms, state laws and regulations designed to protect workers are often weakly implemented or flexibly bent to company interests” (Chan, A Suicide Survivor: the life of a Chinese migrant worker at Foxconn, 2013).
It is important that these workers keep their jobs while maintaining ethical standards. For this to be possible, I researched and found fair trade to be the best solution. Kagera Co-operative Union (KCU) is a fair trade coffee co-operative in Tanzania that has been successfully running for 20 years. Fair trade has allowed the farmers to receive improved working conditions, facilities and enhanced quality production. Fair trade has allowed the farmers to have work to sustain their basic needs and the needs of their families, while their produce is sold across the world. KCU focus on an important aspect of fair trade: everyone is involved. From farmers to managers etc everyone has a say on how to run the company. This has allowed for KCU to be a successful fair trade company for 20 years (Perry, 2013).
In terms of fair trade for the smartphone, Fairphone is the only available company at the moment that is currently creating conflict free minerals. Like KCU, Fairphone is focusing on transparency for their product to be successful. This means workers to stake holders are involved in discussion about how the company should work. This also means everyone is able to see how and where the phone is produced. Fairphone shows that through Fairtrade, workers involved in mining materials and assembling phones are able to maintain work and not be exploited, as they are involved in the ethics process (Fairphone representative, 2013). I feel the best way to push for smartphones to be created through Fairtrade is through putting pressure on corporations and governments as they both have power over working conditions and trade.
For my visual essay, I felt it was important to have hard-hitting images that may be considered difficult to look at in order to shock the audience into retaining the information in my video. To do this, I chose images from the Congo that highlighted the military control over the miners and images of the jail-like facilities at Foxconn. I didn’t want to emotionally manipulate the audience by showing images of just sad faces as I felt it would do more to expose the actual conditions of the workers than to open myself up to skeptics by depicting the token “I’m sad because I’m from a developing nation and need your help” type image. I think factual images are more compelling than emotionally manipulative ones.
I thought about how I wanted to structure my video for a while and decided to begin with directly speaking to the audiences’ association with smartphones: wanting the latest and greatest. I then juxtaposed the ‘queuing’ with workers queuing to work to really bring attention to the disconnect with how our phones are made. I ended the video with footage of people applauding the iPhone, reshowing viewers that relatable aspect of smartphones. With the background of how smartphones are developed now in context, the familiar ‘Western’ image of the smartphone will evoke a different feeling.
I had a list of song options to begin with and ended up narrowing it down to “Teardrop” by Massive Attack, “Lux Aeterna” by Clint Mansell and “Clubbed to Death” by Rob Dougan. I chose CTD as it has many different elements (hard beats, rhythmic piano), which helped to propel the images along.
There were many detailed facts I would have loved to add about the conditions of the workers and a way towards solving this issue, however I feel audiences reject too much information. I decided to have short and powerful captions to propel the message of the images and not overwhelm the audience with too much detail. I chose not to include the ethical phone, Fairphone, in my solution as I felt that would make the video seem too much like an advertisement, which may take away from the overall message: to reinvent our thinking around smartphones.
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Images – CREATIVE COMMONS
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