Liberation technology and corporate misanthropy
Tim Hunt looks at how the mobile phone is revolutionising life for the world’s poorest – and why the industry needs to be held to account for what happens through all stages of a phone’s life cycle.
Like so many aspects of our technology-driven capitalist society, mobile phones are racked with contradictions. On the one hand they have become a powerful tool for social change – on the other, the sourcing of raw materials, their manufacture and their disposal are real causes for concern. In this report we look in-depth at the UK mobile phone industry. See also our related buyers' guide to mobile phone networks.
Turn on, upgrade, chuck out
Last year 28 million mobile phone handsets were sold in the UK. And there are 76 million mobile phone subscriptions in the UK – more than one per person.25 With this sort of saturation, the market for new phones is largely dependent on upgrades. Most people on contracts upgrade to a new phone every 18 months – despite manufacturers themselves putting the working life of a phone at ten years.(33) No surprise then that a recent study found that mobile phone waste is growing by 9% every year.
However this is not the whole story. A survey carried out by Nokia discovered only 3% of old handsets are being thrown into landfill, but just 9% of people recycled their old mobile phone. Twice as many said that they didn’t even realise it was possible to recycle a handset. Nearly half of all old handsets are kept at home without ever being used again, people in the UK now own on average five mobile phones.
Recycling and Reuse
The good news is, mobile handsets are one of the few electronic products that have a thriving reuse market. In fact, more handsets are reused than recycled, with 8% selling their old mobiles and 19% passing them on to friends or family.(13)
To recycle your phone you can simply return your unwanted handset to your network operator or phone retailer, either in-store or by freepost envelope.(35) Several stores, such as Tesco and Boots, give bonus points and other incentives to recycle your mobile phone.(35)
Under the European WEEE regulations manufacturers are obliged to take back any redundant phones. However the figures released by the companies themselves show that this simply isn’t happening. On a global scale the largest retailer Nokia states that it takes back just 3% of old phones; for Samsung the figure is 9%, LG 7% and Motorola 2.5%, while Sony Ericsson no longer provides estimates.(16) To make matters worse there is little openness about how and where these are recycled.
Most networks and mobile-phone shops are part of the Fonebak recycling scheme, which currently processes over 200,000 handsets per month in the UK.(35) And many charities (such as Oxfam and NCH) also have recycling schemes, as do some local councils.
Mobile recycling websites also offer a way to get rid of old mobile phones in return for cash. The phones these companies buy are often sold on in other countries where new phones are prohibitively expensive. In the case of Envirofone, 98% of the phones bought are reconditioned before being sold on in Africa and China, the rest are recycled so precious metals can be extracted and reused.(4) Rates between buyers vary massively – for example a Samsung Z700 can fetch anything between between £55 and £7.(3) MobileValuer.com compares phone recycling companies’ prices.
The illegal waste trade
However not all recycling companies can be trusted to dispose of old mobiles in an ethical, or indeed legal, manner. The 1992 Basel Convention makes it illegal to transport e-waste from country to country. However if the ‘waste’ is deemed fit for re-use it can be legally exported. This creates a grey area whereby poor quality goods can be exported even if they will soon become unusable.
Inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found that nearly half of waste destined for export, including e-waste, was illegal.(27) In an undercover investigation last year, Greenpeace and Sky took an unfixable TV, fitted it with a tracking device and brought it to Hampshire County Council for recycling. Greenpeace wrote: “Instead of being safely dismantled in the UK or Europe, like it should have been, the council’s recycling company, BJ Electronics, passed it on as ‘second-hand goods’ and it was shipped off to Nigeria to be sold or scrapped and dumped.”(9)
In 2009 police and the Environment Agency stated that organised crime was dipping its toe into the murky water of electronics recycling. In raids over the summer agents forced open around 500 containers full of electrical waste destined for illegal export to Africa.
“Our investigations have found that the majority of this equipment is beyond repair and is being stripped down under appalling conditions in Africa,” said the Environment Agency’s Chris Smith. And according to US environmental activist Ted Smith: “Around 50-80% of all of the material collected in the US is making its way abroad.”(8)
Where the waste goes
Indonesia is one country receiving used electronics from the UK.(10) Much of this merchandise is of dubious quality and quickly becomes obsolete, if it isn’t already. The Indonesian Government is now putting together legislation which would require electronics companies to be financially responsible for collecting and recycling e-waste in the country.
However at the moment those processing the waste are often overworked (up to 18 hours a day) and underpaid, and the use of child labour is common. Lax labour laws and economic hardship combine to force thousands to make a living scavenging waste and exposing themselves to health hazards – 500,000 in the capital Jakarta alone. According to Martin Baker, a Greenpeace spokesman in Indonesia: “A lot of people who do this kind of work earn only about two dollars a day and they are poisoning themselves to death.”(10)
In India the same problems exist. In Delhi 25,000 are employed in e-scrap yards, usually paid US$0.66-$1.32 a day, well below the minimum wage of $2.20.30 Many are exposed to chemicals and metals from e-waste that can cause serious health problems including birth defects.(10) Often unprotected, workers use fire and mercuric acid baths to extract the precious metals . Burning releases dioxins – some of the most toxic compounds on earth – while the acid residue contaminates drinking water.(34)
Greenpeace's Greener Guide to Electronics
7.5 Nokia Remains in first place with good scores on toxics use reduction, energy and recycling.
6.9 Samsung Maintains second spot with good overall scores, supports strong global agreement on climate change.
6.5 Sony Ericsson Holds on to third, with good scores on toxics use reduction and energy.
5.7 Toshiba Slightly improved score from last survey, with better reporting of recycling rates.
5.3 Motorola Remains behind competitors like Nokia and Sony Ericsson on toxics use reduction and energy.
4.9 Apple Up from 11th to 9th Apple is the most progressive PC maker on removing toxics from its product range. Room for improvement on e-waste and energy.
4.7 LG Electronics Plummets due to penalty point for delaying phase out of toxics.
4.7 Acer Loses points for fewer products exceeding new Energy Star 5 standard; poor on e-waste recycling criteria.
Source: 13th Greener Guide to Electronics: Greenpeace September 2009
Corporate Social Responsibility Rankings
For this report we have undertaken a detailed analysis of the companies’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting. This builds on a research project conducted by Ethical Consumer into best practice in the sector.
The table above ranks the companies solely on their CSR reporting: the higher the score, the better the rating. Each company was rated on carbon, toxics, resources (such as sourcing from the Democratic Republic of Congo), product ‘end of life’ and workers’ rights. In each category companies were marked out of 100 on: understanding of main impacts; disclosure and transparency; and targets and independent verification. These are different criteria than we use to assess environmental reporting and supply chain policy on the main ethiscore ratings table.
As you can see, a number of companies did well on their reporting on carbon, toxics and recycling but still had a long way to go in the resource use and workers’ rights categories. Overall the larger companies tended to do better than the smaller ones, with Toshiba top by some margin.
How mobile phones are revolutionising life for the world’s poorest
In recent years much has been made of the digital divide between rich and poor. Mobile phones are the first information technology to begin to bridge the gap and change many people’s relationships with power and the economy.
Mobiles are driving the material well-being of those in the world’s poorest nations, while at the same time helping people to mobilise for action against oppressive states. Six in ten people around the world now have mobile phone subscriptions. By the end of last year there were an estimated 4.1 billion subscriptions globally, compared with about 1 billion in 2002.(20)
There are now over 60 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa, while China and India have over 8 million and 7 million new mobile phone subscribers a month respectively.(23) Last year subscriber growth in several sub-Saharan African countries exceeded 150%; there are now eight subscribers per 100 people across the region, up from three in 2001.(19)
Seven ways mobile phones have improved life for the world’s poorest
1. Improving profits for farmers
Farmers can now use mobiles to find out the market price of commodities. For example the Kenyan Agricultural Commodity Exchange together with Kenya’s largest network provider, have equipped farmers with mobile software to give them up-to-date commodity market prices over their phones. For about $0.20 farmers can access commodity prices at markets throughout Kenya. This allows them to reduce transaction costs and bypass middlemen, who often charge below-market rates.(43)
2. Helping consumers
In Bangladesh, Cellbazaar is a sort of a mobile eBay, listing the phone numbers of those looking to buy or sell various items.
3. Providing cheaper access to communication technology
In many countries land lines are expensive, can take years to arrive and may even require political connections to get. For example in Morocco in 1995 there were only four xed lines per 100 inhabitants, and no mobiles. In 2003 this figure remained the same but there were also 24 mobile phone subscribers per 100.(19) Across the globe, prepay cards, internet cafés and vendors who sell their personal cell phone minutes to others add to massively improved access to communication.
4. Providing internet access for those who can’t afford computers
The majority of the world’s population don’t have access to computers. Increasingly internet applications are being developed that can be accessed by basic mobile phones.
5. Making banking more accessible
Global remittances, or payments from migrant workers to their families at home, stood at $433 billion in 2008, according to World Bank estimates. A major share of this, about $328 billion, flowed to the developing world. Remittances are often an important source of family income and represent a significant portion of the GDP for many nations; more than 5% in 29 countries.(22) Money transfer agencies can charge more than 20% commission.(24)
Mobile technology has challenged this monopoly, in some cases cutting charges to 1%.(23)
In Kenya small businesses who don’t have access to commercial banking can gain access to credit via cell phones. In South Africa a service called Wizzit allows anybody with a mobile phone to make person-to-person payments, transfers and pre-paid purchases without a bank account. There is no monthly fee – people only pay for transactions they execute – making it cheaper than traditional banking.
6. Improving public health
In some African nations mobile phones are used to combat disease. Patients can access doctors or national AIDS hot-lines and receive text messages highlighting numbers to call for medicines and to arrange for testing. Nurses also text-message tuberculosis and AIDS patients to remind them to take their medication, boosting recovery rates and reducing costs.
7. Boosting productivity
An oft-quoted 2005 study from the London Business School found that for every ten extra people out of 100 in developing countries that start using cell phones, GDP rises by 0.59 percent per capita(21) (although it should be said GDP is not always the best measure of wellbeing).
A new phenomenon, the ‘citizen journalist’, has appeared all over the world – uploading grainy video footage and photos of protests and unrest - while activists increasingly organise demonstrations using text message.
This was amply demonstrated in Burma during the pro-democracy protests, where mobile phones were key instruments of organisation and information dissemination – despite the incredible cost of phones in the tightly controlled state (SIM cards cost $1800).(37) However, community use of phones allowed many to organise and get their message out.
Footage of a Japanese cameraman shot at point blank range by a soldier, troops shooting into crowds of civilians and police beating monks with iron bars all found their way to the world’s media through mobile phones. The darker side of communications technology allowed the dictatorship to trace activists through mobile phones and internet servers.(37)
A similar situation occurred recently in Iran, where photos and footage from mobile phones galvanised opposition activists who often organised by text. Police tactics included monitoring and seizing mobile phones for intelligence and blocking the mobile phone networks – evidence of the important role they played in the protests.
A less well known example of mobile-activism has seen residents of Africa’s biggest shanty town in Nairobi, Kenya, join forces to help stop forced evictions. This is the first time residents of Kibera, an 800,000 strong slum, have come together to fight government oppression.
The Nairobi People’s Settlement Network use mobiles to get organised, calling on supporters from across many settlements to oppose evictions by sitting down in front of the bulldozers. According to Paul Mason of the BBC, mobile phone technology is beginning to change the dynamics of grass roots politics.(36)
There are many other examples of mobile activism. Women in Kuwait used text messaging to organize rallies, successfully demanding the right to vote and run for elections. The Chinese have used texts to mobilize labour strikes,(38) with the number of open street protests in 2008 up almost 50% from 2005, leading to important labour reforms.(41)
The Hidden Cost of Mobile Phones
Lizzie Parsons, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) campaigner for Global Witness, looks at the unpalatable reality behind our appetite for mobile technology.
Mobile phones are often held up as a success story in modern Africa. Offering access to new trade routes and markets, they are credited with kick-starting a minor economic revolution in parts of a continent once hamstrung by poor fixed communications.
But there’s another, largely untold, side to the story of the mobile’s influence on Africa. In the remote, mineral-rich Kivu region of eastern Congo, global demand is fuelling a thriving but extremely bloody trade in the raw materials used to produce mobiles.
The area’s recent past is a catalogue of suffering and violence, with armed groups battling for economic, political and military control. These rebel militias (and increasingly, the Congolese national army) have gained control of lucrative mining networks rich in minerals such as cassiterite (tin ore) and coltan – crucial to the manufacture of electronic goods.
In retaining their strangleholds, the groups have visited horrific human rights abuses on civilian families. Reports by Global Witness, the UN and others have documented widespread abuses including mass rape, murder, extortion and forced labour, child soldier recruitment and population displacement.
Global Witness’ 2009 report, ‘Faced with a gun, what can you do?’, revealed that groups on opposite sides co-operate to share the spoils of illegal mining. Cutting off the proceeds from this brutal and unregulated trade would remove a major incentive for warring parties to keep fighting, and would make it more difficult for the rebel groups to survive.
How do the metals get out?
Naturally, willing buyers are the lifeblood of the industry. Using middle-men operating in eastern Congo and neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi, foreign companies purchase minerals from trading houses (‘comptoirs’) who buy directly from armed groups and military units. Such companies include the British-owned Amalgamated Metal Corporation (AMC), which through its subsidiary THAISARCO sources and processes metals from one of the main comptoirs, known to have direct links with the FDLR – a predominantly Rwandan Hutu armed group, some of whose leaders are alleged to have participated in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The financial benefits derived from control over minerals are so great that the trade has become an end in itself – the FDLR are known locally as the ‘big businessmen’. Firms like AMC then sell these materials on to a range of manufacturing companies in the electronics industry and they end up in our mobile phones and computers.
What can be done?
Companies like AMC and others have been buying minerals from Congo’s conflict-torn areas for the past decade despite criticism from the UN and other groups. Global Witness is urging all those mining, processing or manufacturing minerals from Congo to carry out checks and audits of their supply chains to ensure that their purchases are not fuelling conflict. Without these measures consumers cannot know where their products come from, and what was done to obtain them.
The consequences of failed industry self-regulation are evident in the ongoing atrocities in eastern Congo. Foreign governments must act by asking the UN to impose targeted sanctions on companies complicit in this trade. Britain, as one of the biggest aid donors in DRC, must send a clear message to companies registered here that their bankrolling of conflict in the region will not be condoned. Meanwhile consumers should demand that electronics manufacturers provide details of the origins of the materials in their products.
The introduction of responsible sourcing practices would allow the global demand for electronics to drive development rather than financing destruction. By holding the companies that make them to account we can turn the resource wealth of eastern Congo from a curse into a catalyst.
|The Resources column on the Corporate Social Responsibility Rankings table above ranks handset providers on their policies addressing the coltan issue. As the table shows, few in the industry are taking the problem seriously with only four companies even mentioning mining. Of these all have very limited policy statements. But it is a start, and campaigners might want to focus on those companies that have admitted there is an issue to drive standards forward.
The Enough Project and the Raise Hope for Congo websites contain a number of actions you can undertake to put pressure on companies and governments to change the situation.
Mobile phone health risks to children are being downplayed
A new report published in November 2011 by UK charity MobileWise warned that children’s health is being jeopardised by the failure of Government and phone companies to respond to the growing body of evidence linking mobile phone use with health hazards. Medical experts and MobileWise are calling on Government and industry to respond to the evidence and to provide warnings and advice on ways to reduce the risk of health damage when using mobiles, especially for children.
British neurosurgeon Kevin O’Neill, Chairman of the Brain Tumour Research Campaign, says: “It would be a mistake to ignore the mounting evidence pointing to a link between mobile phones and risks to health, especially when we know that children are much more vulnerable to phone radiation and that there are simple measures available to help them cut their exposure. We have an opportunity now to promote safety measures, mindful of the benefits of mobile phone technology but reflecting the potentially serious risks”.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) confirmed these concerns when, in May 2011, its expert panel of 30 scientists classified mobile phone radiation as possibly carcinogenic to humans after having reviewed all the existing evidence. This classification is often the first step towards an exposure being classified as probably or definitely carcinogenic. Indeed, some of the scientists on the panel argued that the higher level categorisation (probably carcinogenic) was already justified.
MobileWise Director Vicky Fobel says: “We have a choice: we can either continue to ignore the mounting evidence of risks and do nothing until we have incontrovertible proof that mobiles can damage health or we can take note of this evidence, even if it is still inconclusive, and act to protect children before it is too late. Since the measures proposed are simple, inexpensive and unobtrusive, it is irresponsible to wait for conclusive proof of lasting damage before acting.”
The report highlights the fact that the use of mobiles among primary school children is on the rise and that by secondary school 9 out of 10 children are using them, many habitually. MobileWise is calling for them to be informed about how to limit their exposure – including keeping calls to a minimum, texting, using headsets and keeping phones away from the groin.
The report points out that the Department of Health has issued warnings about the risks of mobile use, recommending that under-16s use phones only for essential calls. But it criticises the Government for doing little to publicise these warnings, citing the fact that the current Department of Health/NHS leaflet has never been printed and is only available as a pdf on the Department of Health website.
Phone companies should actively engage in the information campaign, providing customers with clear practical advice in marketing literature, on websites and during conversation. Small-print warnings in phone instruction manuals should be replaced with clear statements in a prominent place on phone packaging.
Fobel says: “The UK government is lagging behind other countries such as Canada, France and certain states in the US, all of which have taken steps to publicise safety guidance. In line with new recommendations by the Council of Europe, we are urging the UK government to stop dragging its feet and to roll out an information campaign in schools, doctors’ surgeries and phone shops as a matter of urgency.”
Download the full report ‘Mobile phone health risks: the case for action to protect children’.
As with most sectors of the electronics industry problems in the mobile phone supply chain abound, with reports of workers’ rights abuses well documented.
In 2009 Apple, Motorola and Nokia were alleged to have violated parts of the Electronic Industries Citizenship code to which all three are signatories. A Global Post investigation – ‘Silicon Sweat Shops’ – reported that the companies’ suppliers were criticised for sacking workers without notification or reason, forcing workers to work over 70 hours a week and docking wages if they didn’t do overtime. Workers had been coached by managers to say the right thing when inspectors from Apple audited the factory, but according to the report: “Even by the industry’s own assessment, its codes are routinely ignored.”(46)
Earlier last year Apple, Sony Ericsson, LG, Samsung, Acer and Nokia were all mentioned in a report by Dutch labour rights organisation SOMO. The report, which centred on factories in the Philippines, found that since 2006 many aspects of working conditions had deteriorated, largely due to sub-contracted labour replacing permanent positions. According to the National Wage and Productivity Commission, wages were only a third of what was considered a ‘living wage,’ making excessive work hours a necessity. In the peak season workers regularly worked seven days per week, sometimes 12 hours a day. Conditions were worst in Export Processing Zones, where ‘no union-no strike’ policies were enforced. Such practices were found to be prevalent throughout the mobile phone sector.(40)
Doro and Amplicom are specialist producers of big buttoned and hearing aid compatible phones.
Motorola are the target of a boycott call from the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, over its dealings with the Israeli Defence Force – including providing fuses for bombs and guided munitions, according to the campaign.(47)
Ethical Consumer have called a boycott of the Hutchison Whampoa group (owner of 3 and Superdrug in the UK) because of subsidiary Husky Energy’s substantial involvement in the tar sands projects in Alberta, Canada.
Nokia Siemens has been targeted for providing the Iranian regime with a “monitoring center” that enables security forces to tap cell phones, scramble text messages, and interrupt calls. Nokia Siemens new surveillance system was said to have enhanced the regime’s ability to crack down on dissent during recent protests.(44) There is a Facebook group. Although we were not able to trace an address for this boycott call, we have made an exception in this case for obvious reasons.
• Make IT Fair campaigns for workers’ rights in IT manufacturing
• Global Witness is an international NGO that reports on human rights abuses
1 http://www.newswiretoday.com/news/61245/ 29/1/09
2 http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/may/28/greenwash-electronic-waste 29/1/09
3 http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2009/nov/28/recycling-old-mobile-phones 29/1/09
4 http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/business/s/1185348_eazyfone_sets_sights_on_europe 29/1/09
5 http://www.prfrog.co.uk/pr/launch-of-mobile-phone-recycling-comparison-site-3884.html 29/1/09
6 http://www.mobilephonerecycling.co.uk/ 29/1/09
7 http://www.connexionfrance.com/news_articles.php?id=1247 29/1/09
9 http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk/news/index.cfm?NewsID=111044 29/1/09
10 http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=87402 29/1/09
11 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8379010.stm 29/1/09
13 http://www.itwire.com/content/view/19308/1231/ 29/1/09
14 Mintel marketing report. Mobile Phones 2008
15 Faced with a war what can you do. War and the militarisation of mining in eastern congo. Global witness 2009
16 Greenpeace greener guide to electronics September 2009
17 Make IT fair.com 29/1/09
18 Make it fair website 29/1/09
19 http://www.developments.org.uk/articles/loose-talk-saves-lives-1/ 29/1/09
20 http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory?id=6986939 29/1/09
21 http://legatum.mit.edu/content-207 29/1/09
22 http://www.iamtn.org/content/global-money-transfer-monthly-3 29/1/09
23 http://www.finextra.com/News/Announcement.aspx?pressreleaseid=31578 29/1/09
24 http://southasia.oneworld.net/ictsfordevelopment/mobile-phone-based-remittance-transfer-soon-in-bangladesh/ 29/1/09
25 http://www.easier.com/64067-nearly-20-million-brits-have-not-switched-on-to-switching.html 29/1/09
26 http://www.newswiretoday.com/news/61245/ 29/1/09
27/28/29/30 Greenpeace http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/toxics/electronics/where-does-e-waste-end-up. Last seen 12/3/09 29/1/09
32 http://www.greenusesforwaste.co.uk/dont-throw-old-mobile-phone.html 29/1/09
33 The economics of cell phone reuseand recycling Roland Geyer & Vered Doctori Blass Received:1December2008/Accepted:20July2009
34 ‘Recyclers’ illegally exporting electronic waste BY JOAN DELANEY EPOCH TIMES STAFF December 4 - 17, 2008
35 http://www.which.co.uk/advice/recycle-your-mobile-phone/recycling-options/index.jsp 29/1/09
36 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/6242305.stm 29/1/09
37 http://static.rnw.nl/migratie/www.radionetherlands.nl/thestatewerein/otherstates/tswi-081206-internet-myanmar-redirected 29/1/09
38 http://www.america.gov/st/freepress-english/2008/April/20080518180618WRybakcuH0.5394098.html 29/1/09
40 Configuring Labour Rights Labour Conditions in the Production of Computer Parts in the Philippines. Somo. July 2009
41 September 2008, makeITfair published a report entitled Silenced to Deliver: Mobile phone manufacturing in China and the Philippines
43 http://www.one.org/c/us/progressreport/775/ 29/1/09
44 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/14/nokia-boycott-iran-election-protests 29/1/09
45 MIT 10 Ways Cell Phones Help People Living in Poverty by Niki Denison
47 http://boycottisraelnyc.org/category/goodbye-moto/472/why-motorola 29/1/09