A Christmas Downer

Panorama's Richard Bilton

Don’t blame me, blame the BBC for going there…

Last night BBC Panorama aired yet another documentary exposing the dark side of our gadget lust, revealing not only factory conditions in China but children being put to work in Indonesian mines, all to produce that mini-computer you carry with you. I haven’t yet seen the episode; I’m emotionally preparing myself to watch it over the weekend. But I have seen other investigative reports on similar subject matter, so I’ve at least an inkling of what I’m in for.

Are you uncomfortable yet? Good, because you should be.

Where To Watch It

Depending on your viewing habits there are at least three ways to view this one-hour video report. If you’ve a proxy on your web browser you can change your location to the UK and see the episode directly on BBC’s site via iPlayer. If you’re the sea-faring type (yahr!) you might be able to snag a torrent if you look in the right places. And if it’s not taken down yet you can watch some kind soul’s low-res upload on YouTube:

You May Also Be Unsettled By

The issue of children working in mines is particularly troubling, and something you may not have heard about before. I know a bit about it thanks to the 2012 documentary Blood in the Mobile, wherein filmmaker Frank Poulsen takes a camera into the depths of a particularly infamous tantalum mine in the “Democratic” Republic of Congo. The images are… disturbing, and something that has stayed with me since my one and only viewing. If you think you can stomach it you order a DVD of film right here. There may also still be a torrent of it out there somewhere.

A Different Perspective

Foxconn Girl

Here’s where I’m going to ask for the benefit of the doubt, as I don’t have a direct citation for the theory I’m about to present. I thought I saw it in the 2004 documentary A Decent Factory, but it must have been something else I caught on TV. Basically, it’s like this:

The reason why factory lines in Shenzhen and the like are mostly staffed with young women is because these women come from rural areas of China, where there is basically nothing for them to do but farm work. Working in a factory allows them to send money back home and at the same time save up for their own education—in other words, factory work isn’t a career by any means, but rather a temporary means to a better end.

Obviously I’m no expert in the intricacies of the Chinese workforce, but there is some merit to this, I think. And if the Chinese mainlanders I see in Hong Kong every year throwing gobs of money around is any indication… 😉

What Can Be Done

Like a lot of other tech bloggers dutifully reporting on the BBC exposé I’m doing the same here—but I’ll go try a bit further than that. One interesting development in the wake of conflict-mineral mining is the concept of the ethical smartphone, pioneered by Netherlands-based OEM Fairphone. It’s a bit of a non-starter for the North American market, unfortunately, as their current device doesn’t even have a 3G radio that works here.

EthicalConsumer.org has an online tool to rank the major smartphone OEMs by various criteria, including environment, animals, people, politics and sustainability. At the default settings Alcatel and Huawei rank best, Samsung and Amazon worst.

If you’ve got any other suggestions of how to lower the hidden costs of smartphones, let’s hear ’em!

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