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Exploitation and climate equity

In this article learn about how undeveloped countries are being disproportionately effected by the impacts of climate.
© Creative Computing Institute

So it’s clear that technologies are having a deep and lasting impact on the environment, but how are these impacts affecting human beings?

E-waste Recycling

As we’ve discussed, e-waste is a growing problem, but it’s a problem whose effects are mostly felt by those in developing countries, with a lot of this waste being shipped to these countries illegally. John Vidal highlights a report by Interpol which stated that “almost one in three containers leaving the EU that were checked by its agents contained illegal e-waste.” following which “criminal investigations were launched against 40 companies” (1). Countries which bear the brunt of global e-waste are left with mounting piles of electronics which are failing to be recycled. In India a report by Neha Arora and Sunil Kataria speaks of New Dehli’s Seelampur e-waste market, where “vines of old electric cable are strewn or rolled over the mountains of electronic trash, […] lanes are filled with scrap shops where thousands of people work, picking apart whatever is salvageable from the junk gathered from across North India.” (2). They reference a United Nations report which highlights that in “middle- and low-income countries, the e-waste management infrastructure is not yet fully developed or, in some cases, is entirely absent,” and even though India is one of the few countries in South Asia to have “draft legislation for e-waste, its collection remains rudimentary”.

India is one of the biggest recipients of e-waste in the world, second only to China. A report by Toxic Link found that soil in areas processing high quantities of e-waste in India was contaminated with high levels of metals including lead, while water supplies were equally contaminated by metals including mercury. One sample taken from the Mandoli area had nearly 710 times the recommended limit of mercury (3). The question remains as to why countries in the EU with more advanced infrastructure and resources for recycling are failing to do so themselves.

Exploitative labour

Equally, people in developing countries are subject to exploitative labour conditions producing technologies for the rest of the world. China has faced multiple accusations of exploitative labour; Hengyang Foxconn, a factory that produces devices for Amazon was accused of oppressing workers and Catcher Technologies Ltd, who produces technologies for Apple, IBM, and Dell among others, were investigated for discriminatory hiring policies, lack of safety training, long working hours, and low wages. Most recently, indigenous Uyghur and Kazakh citizens from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are being forced into labour which the People’s Republic of China deem part of ‘surplus labour’ and ‘labour transfer’ programmes. The region produces about 45% of the world’s supply of the key component used in solar panel production, polysilicon. While the PRC states the labour programmes comply with their employment laws and that people entered them voluntarily an investigation by Sheffield Hallam University found otherwise. They state that “labour transfers are deployed in the Uyghur Region within an environment of unprecedented coercion, undergirded by the constant threat of re-education and internment. Many indigenous workers are unable to refuse or walk away from these jobs, and thus the programmes are tantamount to forcible transfer of populations and enslavement” (4).

Elsewhere in the world, a movement of tech workers in Brazil sought to unionise in response to exploitative conditions in the country, forming the organisation Infoproletários. The group describes itself as a “social movement made up of workers in the IT area, gathered with the aim of denouncing and combating the exploitation and abuse that we suffer in our category”. In an interview with Felix Hotwell in 2018, the group highlighted issues in the country including recent new work laws “which significantly weakened labour rights” as well as the growth of tech startup culture, which has spread from Silicon Valley to Brazil. This culture has brought with it a system in which “the work shifts tend to be longer and more intense than in more conventional companies, the work regimen is much more precarious. Usually, they use illegal hiring formats and there is a mutual contamination between leisure and working hours“(6).

Corporations like Amazon and Apple, as well as small tech startups, have a moral obligation to ensure workers in every aspect of their company, from the labour they source in factories to office floors and design studios, are treated fairly. It’s clear that current models of production are not sustainable, for the environment and people but especially for those in developing countries. To address this we need to move towards a model of climate equity, which ensures “the just distribution of the benefits of climate protection efforts and alleviates unequal burdens created by climate change”(7).

We will be looking more in-depth at strategies to achieve this later in the course, particularly focusing on the role developed countries must play in shouldering the burden of tackling climate change, but for now, what are your thoughts on what’s been shared here? Sound off in the comments below.

References

  1. John Vidal, 2013. Toxic ‘e-waste’ dumped in poor nations, says United Nations, The Guardian.
  2. Neha Arora and Sunil Kataria, 2020. World’s e-waste ‘unsustainable’, says UN report citing China, India and U.S, Reuters.
  3. Toxic Link, 2014. Impact of e-waste recycling on water and Soil
  4. Laura T. Murphy & Nyrola Elimä, 2021. In broad daylight: Uyghur forced labour and global solar supply chains, Sheffield Hallam University.
  5. Infoproletários.
  6. Felix Holtwell, 2018. “We must think about a tech workers’ strike”: An interview with the Infoproletários, Notes From Below.
  7. Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, 2018. Defining Climate Equity
© Creative Computing Institute
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