Americans spend over $125 billion on consumer electronics every year, more than the entire gross domestic product of some populous countries such as Bangladesh. Electronics, ranging from the latest kitchen gadgets to innovative smartphones, seem to change Western consumption habits year to year more than any other consumer products. And in the past decade, no segment of the electronics industry has transformed global life more than digital communications. Nine out of ten American adults own a cell phone. It is difficult to imagine the modern workplace functioning without the use of the Internet and its conduits. Nearly one in five people across the globe purchased a new mobile phone sometime in 2012, and nearly 2.5 billion individuals, more than a third of the world’s population, make use of the Internet.Whereas the agriculture and garment industries have developed for millennia, the electronics industry is less than a century old—though early computing technology was based on innovations in textile manufacturing, such as punch card machines. It’s tempting to imagine that this fledgling industry might have skipped over some of the worst labor abuses associated with older industrial sectors, but electronics workers have been subject to child labor abuses, low wages, dangerous working conditions, and environmental degradation from the dawn of the digital age.
Transistor radios—perhaps the first mobile communications devices that linked individuals through electricity and airwaves—were engineered in the United States after World War II. When William Shockley opened his laboratory in Mountain View, California, in the mid 1950s and stopped using germanium semiconductors in favor of silicon ones, he introduced a new age in electronics. The personal computer and other personal electronic devices were on the horizon.
Enthusiasm for semiconductor manufacturing in the newly dubbed Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the United States, high in the 1970s, turned tepid in the eighties and nineties. Reports surfaced of contaminated drinking water around manufacturing plants. PCBs and trichloroethylene, among other chemicals used in the manufacture of computer chips, were identified as possible carcinogens. Rare birth defects and cancer clusters emerged among factory workers and their families near electronic manufacturing sites in California, Minnesota, and New York. Today, Silicon Valley hosts some of the highest concentrations of Superfund sites in the country, including the grounds of nearly twenty former computer chip manufacturing plants.
Facing health claims from U.S. workers and residents, many tech companies shifted their manufacturing operations to other continents. In Taiwan in the seventies and eighties, manufacturers developed an original model for mass-producing silicon chips and other electronics components. Perhaps the best known of these companies is Foxconn, an electronics manufacturer that established or contracted local agents to set up mega factories (industrial sites with tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of workers) that could produce high-volume, low-cost electronics components for multiple brands and retailers overseas.
Foxconn’s largest factory presence is in Shenzhen, China, a city located in the Pearl River Delta bordering Hong Kong. In 1979, Shenzhen became one of the world’s first special economic zones, a designation that exempts manufacturers from local and national taxes, regulations, and labor laws. Today, Foxconn manufactures around 40 percent of the world’s consumer electronics and employs over 1.2 million workers in China alone, along with countless others in India, Brazil, and Mexico, with many factories located in special economic zones that shield the company from labor regulations and allow for the lowest possible production costs.For Foxconn clients such as Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Walmart, the advantage of manufacturing abroad is clear. In October 2012, Apple announced that net profits for the previous three months were $8.2 billion, making it the third-highest profit-netting company in the world. Microsoft, Walmart, General Electric, and Intel were close behind, all with annual net profits of over $12 billion.
For individuals working in electronics manufacturing, the benefits are less clear. Though the lure of greater economic opportunity brings millions from rural areas to new urban manufacturing powerhouses in China and other developing nations, workers often encounter unexpected hazards.
At Foxconn, abusive labor practices have been met with vocal and sometimes violent protests from employees. Twice in 2012, pay disputes, use of forced student labor, and dissatisfaction with employer relations sparked protests by Foxconn workers. It was not the first time Foxconn had come under scrutiny for its labor practices. Six years earlier, Foxconn had been criticized for violating Chinese law on maximum work hours, and, in 2010, the electronics giant was the subject of international media attention when more than a dozen workers took their own lives by jumping out of Foxconn dormitory windows on two campuses in Shenzhen.
Groups such as Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) and China Labour Bulletin have been monitoring labor conditions in China since 2005 and 1994, respectively. Through their discussions with workers in some of China’s biggest exporting industries, they have uncovered the use of forced student labor, unpaid and illegal overtime, chronic injuries from lack of protection from gases used in electronics, and life-threatening equipment in the manufacture of home appliances.
Li Wen, a young worker who had come to Shenzhen seeking employment as a teenager, suffered a greusome hand injury in a factory subcontracting to Walmart in 2009. His hand had to be amputated, and though Li was granted some compensation from both the factory and the Chinese government, the award was inadequate and he’s been left with few long term employment opportunities.
One young Foxconn employee, Sung Huang, has fared better than Li Wen, but his experience is representative of that of many young workers lured from the country to do factory work in Shenzhen. Sung grew up in the town of Jiangzhi, historically one of China’s foremost porcelain producers, but the promise of better wages drew him five hundred miles south to Shenzhen and other industrial centers in the region. Though jobs are readily available, most are temporary. Sung hops from job to job in towns hundreds of miles apart, staying in temporary housing and unable to establish stable living conditions.
The hazards faced by young electronics workers are not unique to China or other developing nations. In South Korea—often called “The Republic of Samsung” because of that company’s near-total economic and political influence over the government—workers in semiconductor plants have begun to fall sick. Dr. Jeong-ok Kong, a medical researcher working with Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry (SHARPS), has discovered that over the last five years, more than eighty cases of rare blood and brain cancers have been documented among workers from two Samsung semiconductor facilities near Seoul.
Most of those workers who have died so far have been in their twenties and thirties. In trying to get more information from Samsung about working conditions and worker medical records—which Samsung obtains from medical examinations of all its workers—SHARPS has been repeatedly turned away. Samsung has refused to release the health records, even to the workers requesting them for themselves. In this atmosphere of secrecy and indifference, individuals such as Hye-kyeong Han—a former Samsung semiconductor worker now battling brain cancer—remain struggling for recourse for their work-related illnesses, even as those illnesses continue to erode their health. Read her story.
This article is excerpted from the book Invisible Hands: Voices From The Global Economy, an oral history collection by publisher Voice of Witness.
Graphic by Michelle Ney