Moving Beyond Complicity

How many people do you know without a smart phone, an iPad, a laptop or a camera? Given the ubiquity of technology today, it is remarkable how little we know about how our gadgets are manufactured. Or worse still, we know and we remain complicit.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival showcases films that reveal human rights struggles from around the globe in a personal, artistic and poignant manner. Human Rights Watch state that the festival aims to: “bear witness to human rights violations and create a forum for courageous individuals on both sides of the lens to empower audiences with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a difference.” From my experience, I can attest that they are continuously realising this mission.

As part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, I attended the London premiere of the film Complicit. The film is directed by Heather White and Lynn Zhang, and is also part of the official selection for the Toronto International Film Festival and the Geneva International Film Festival and Forum for Human Rights. Through the personal struggle of Yi Yeting, who is suffering from occupation-induced leukaemia, the audience are taken on a journey into the depths of the electronics industry in Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

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Photo from Complicit: – Yi has had nearly 35 chemotherapy treatments for occupation-induced leukemia

Complicit reveals that the reality of factory work in the electronics industry is crushing. As part of the manufacturing and finishing process for smartphones and other electronic devices, employees are required to “wipe” the screens. In some factories, they do so with substances containing n-hexane and benzene, which are toxic chemicals. This results in cases of occupation-induced leukaemia, as experienced by Yi Yeting, n-hexane poisoning and a range of other health issues. Some employees become hospitalised and are unable to continue working, while others can somehow persist with work, family life and day-to-day responsibilities. Several individuals were so determined to earn money that after being hospitalised for three years, they returned to work in the same factory where they had contracted the condition. It is difficult to prove causality in cases of occupational health problems, so employers are generally reluctant to accept responsibility, to provide compensation or to cover the high costs associated with treatment.

Since the 1960s, it has been documented that long periods of exposure to n-hexane may cause numbness, weakness and potentially paralysis in the arms and legs. Nonetheless, the chemical remains in use in China in the interest of cutting costs. In practice, n-hexane could be replaced with heptane, a safer chemical, for less than US $1 for each mobile phone produced.

Several individuals were so determined to earn money that after being hospitalised for three years, they returned to work in the same factory where they had contracted the condition.

According to Future Market Insights, global revenues from the consumer electronics industry are projected to reach nearly US$ 3 trillion by 2020. China’s workforce will remain well placed to meet the increased manufacturing demand in this sector. The wave of migration, which has seen over 200 million migrants move from rural areas to large cities since 1990, is therefore also likely to persist. Through China’s Hukou system, citizens’ access to education, healthcare and social security are largely restricted to their region of birth, unless they are willing to pay a premium. This means that for some workers, occupation-induced conditions are compounded by a lack of state support due to their migrant status. The emotional pain can be just as devastating; some young women in the film worried that rather than supporting their aging parents, as they had hoped to do by working in the city, their health problems had made them burdens.

While global technology companies, such as Apple and Samsung, may not contract factories that use toxic chemicals directly, the situation further along their supply chains is somewhat murkier. For instance, Apple contract Foxconn for the manufacturing of iPhones. In a struggle to meet growing production quotas and stringent deadlines, Foxconn and other larger suppliers sub-contract smaller factories. There is limited visibility over what happens in these sub-contracted factories and while they focus on minimising costs, the labour standards to which they adhere are inadequate in many cases.

As the workers with occupational health problems reveal in Complicit, they have worked on both Apple and Samsung products. These stories do not feature in the Corporate Social Responsibility reports of Apple and Samsung. In fact, Apple’s website states that: ‘There’s a right way to make products. It starts with the rights of the people who make them’ and outlines numerous initiatives around labour and human rights, empowering workers and accountability. Perhaps they have visibility over the first tier of their supply chain, but this industry-wide problem requires persistent, focused and comprehensive efforts at every stage of the supply chain.

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Photo from Complicit: – Yi Yeting helping other workers to fight for compensation from the hospital

Engagement and consumer power are likely to be crucial in this process, as stressed by Heather White and the speakers in the panel discussion after the film screening. If enough consumers question the labour practices in big technology companies’ supply chains and demand improvements, the electronics industry should move in the right direction. Successful consumer campaigns in the past have shown that big brands care about their reputation. After the consumer pressure exerted on Nike throughout the 1990s for exploitation of factory workers, the company has grown to become a sustainability leader. Following consistent consumer and NGO pressure, Nestle has committed to a zero deforestation policy in its palm oil supply chain. Who’s to say that this cannot happen at the scale of the electronics industry?

Already, there are individuals and organisations standing up for the rights of workers in the electronics industry. Yi Yeting himself has done a lot of work on the ground to help those who have contracted conditions at work understand their rights, build legal cases and create a movement that exerts pressure on the industry. Although activism and campaigning may be challenging in China, there is grassroots action from organisations such as Honk Kong based Labour Action China. As well as generating solidarity, they lead campaigns, conduct research and provide training for workers. From across the world, Electronics Watch is an independent monitoring organisation that spans Spain, Poland, the UK, Germany and several other European countries. They help the public sector to buy responsibly, in a way which protects the labour rights of workers in their global electronics supply chains. Meanwhile, the social enterprise Fairphone offers consumers the opportunity to buy a phone which has been made in good working conditions from ethically sourced materials.

As with many global challenges, it can be difficult to strike the balance between despairing at the current situation, and feeling optimistic and empowered to drive positive change. I believe that Complicit achieves this balance brilliantly. After watching the film, I saw my shiny new iPhone in a very different light. However, I also glimpsed a light at the end of the tunnel. Building awareness, using our powers as consumers and re-instating the labour standards to which we expect our products to be manufactured can create hope for industry-wide transformation.

3 thoughts on “Moving Beyond Complicity

  1. Kate Hawkins says:

    It’s saddening that the ethics behind the production of our technology is often an afterthought, or in most cases hardly considered at all. As consumers, we have more power than we realise. Our actions can influence the policy of big businesses, lessen our environmental impact and change lives for the better. A friend of mine recently bought a Fairphone – it looks great and is powered by Android (which I personally love) so it will definitely be my next phone! When my Motorola has lived it’s life of course 😉


    1. Sonya Likhtman says:

      Yes, it is a huge problem, especially now that technology is so deeply integrated into our lives. These human rights abuses may appear invisible, but by using the products, we are perpetuating such practises more than we like to think. That’s why industry-wide change is essential. The Fairphone sounds like a brilliant start. I haven’t heard much about its functionality, so I will look forward to hearing your thoughts!


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