Laptops, smartphones and tablets are modern devices that facilitate people’s lives and help society in a variety of ways. However, not everyone knows what happens behind the scenes to get us these coveted items.
Technology companies typically have large and complex supply chains. Many different materials go into making a computer or a smartphone, which makes sourcing the industry’s biggest challenge. In 2018, around 1.56 billion smartphones were sold worldwide. This impressive figure shows how important new technologies have become in the 21st century, and demonstrates the amount of resources and labour it needs to keep producing in a high-demand market.
Some of the components found in these devices are metals, which are extracted from the earth in countries like China and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The makeup of an average smartphone or laptop is 40% metals, 40% plastic, and 20% ceramics and trace materials, which means that mining plays an important role in these products’ material flow. However, mining is one of the most predatory industries in the world, known for its dangerous standards of operation.
Instead of sourcing in countries where mining is strictly regulated like Canada and Australia, tech companies prefer to source raw materials in developing nations — where operations and the labour market are less formal — making it easier for them to minimize costs and maximize profits. With few, if any, regulations, mining for technological products is normally performed by people who receive low wages, and by children.
Many children and women end up working for mining companies to help their families make ends meet. In some cases, they are forced to work by the dictatorial regime in power in their particular area. Women, children and men all face the same precarious conditions in this demanding and physical work. According to the World Bank, in the DRC, for example, young women — many of whom are under 18 — do 40% of all mining work. Although dangerous and indecent conditions and child labour are issues condemned by the international community — and are, in fact illegal — and multinational companies, solutions for these issues have yet to be properly implemented to end these practices.
In addition to mining, manufacturing is another part of the technology supply chain that needs improvement. The majority of tech devices, such as e-readers, smartphones and computers are made in China, which has already faced harsh criticism about conditions in its factories. China Labor Watch reports that suppliers for some of the world’s largest tech companies usually have excessive overtime hours, low wages and child labour. Gender discrimination is also a significant problem: women are usually overlooked for employment because they are deemed too weak for the job, and because they might require paid maternity leave during the course of their employment.
Despite the fact that some tech giants have revenues bigger than some countries’ GDP, they are still unable to properly monitor and assess their supplier network to verify whether they are in compliance with international labour law and the best practices and standards set by regulators. Some labour specialists argue that change will only be achieved when these companies begin to closely monitor their supply chains and are able to trace all components of any given device to its original source. Being able to trace the origin of each material will manufacturers to know who was involved in its production, making it easier for companies to create policies and practices to avoid forced and child labour and gender discrimination, and ensure decent wages for all workers.
About the author
Lucas Alves is a Junior Communication Officer at ITU. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Lucas graduated in advertising in 2014, and worked at a communications agency for two years.
He left Brazil in 2017 to pursue a Master’s degree in sustainability management in Switzerland, which he completed in 2018. His thesis was on smartphones supply chains and their impact on the countries involved.