MAC: Mines and Communities

The following is an excellent summary by the China Labour Bulletin (Hong Kong) on the appalling attr

Published by MAC on 2005-08-15

The following is an excellent summary by the China Labour Bulletin (Hong Kong) on the appalling attrition to Chinese women, men and children who "recycle" the toxic chemical and heavy metal laden electronric wastes which so many of us carelessly and unthinkingly cast off - to the detriment of the health of scores of thousands of people in China and India.

The Plight of China's E-Waste Workers

China Labour Bulletin

August 15, 2005

When most people bring home a new piece of technology to replace an old or outdated item, little thought is given as to where their old electronics will end up. Some old personal computers, laptops, televisions or cell phones are brought to second hand shops, where they'll presumably find a new home. Others are stored in basements or attics to gather dust like unwanted Christmas presents. However, the vast majority of the first world's worn-out tech toys are exported to developing nations, primarily India and China, where they wind up in so-called recycling centers. There, tonnes of old electronic items are disassembled by poorly paid and untrained workers into component parts, with anything of value stripped away before the bulk is either burned, poisoning the air, or dumped untreated into fields, canals or rice paddies to foul the local environment for generations to come.

One town that has gained international notoriety as an E-waste processing centre is Guiyu, in Guangdong province, just a few hours by car from the gleaming high-tech factories of Shenzhen and Guangzhou. In recent years, environmentalists and journalists have travelled to this one-time rice-growing village to write about the particular brand of environmental devastation wrought by the E-waste industry. According to one recent account, 'Guiyu, in Guangdong, is the centre of an uncontrolled environmental disaster...a landscape that varies from filthy to apocalyptic . Another journalistic account, aptly titled Dante's Digital Junkyard, provided the following thumbnail sketch: Loud crunching noises emanated from homes where workers were feeding computer casings and cell phones into grinders that spit out tiny pieces of plastic. Outside, men in slippers and rolled-up pants washed the plastic in ceramic jugs and spread the pieces out on the sidewalk to dry. Older children helped out by picking through the plastic chips and sorting them by color. The fragments are eventually sold and reprocessed into cups, containers and other goods. Toddlers squatted between the junk piles, watching 5-ton trucks unload more e-waste packed in bulging burlap sacks.

Despite its unhealthy landscape, Guiyu is a magnet to those seeking employment on the underside of China's economic miracle. E-waste workers are primarily migrant labourers from the countryside faced with the grim choice so common in this stratum of Chinese society: Work in an undesirable occupation or go hungry. It is impossible to describe their plight without also describing the landscape in which they work, as their work, environment and health issues are all closely related.

In official government parlance, Guiyu is referred to as a 'recycling base,' perhaps conjuring images in the western mind of workers wearing yellow smocks, safety masks and rubber gloves neatly sorting bits and bobs into coloured bins. This is not, however, the reality. Another article paints a clearer picture of the E-waste workplace: Here [in Guiyu], where the gritty air stings your throat and circuit boards pile up like dry leaves in the gutter, a group of women squat on the sidewalk using their bare hands to pull apart the hazardous guts of a small mountain of PCs. This is where many of America's computers go to die.

The article goes on to discuss the plight of one of the estimated 100,000 workers, mostly rural migrants, involved in Guiyu's E-waste trade. Li Xiu Lan traveled the breadth of China to escape destitution in Sichuan province. Here on a Guiyu sidewalk, she is pulling apart a PC carcass, earning about 17 cents an hour as she exposes herself to a witch's brew of chemicals without gloves, goggles or other protection. 'I don't know yet if I like this work,' said Li, 30, who had been on the job about one month. 'But back home, there are no jobs. There is no money. There is nothing to do.'

The Hazards of E-waste Work

The health hazards faced by Li Xiu Lan and other workers in the E-waste trade are as numerous as the list of toxins found inside an average PC. Metal plates inside the chassis are often coated with hexavalent chromium. Circuit boards and their components usually contain a toxic mixture of beryllium, mercury and cadmium, with individual components held together with lead solder. Old-style cathode ray tube monitors contain barium, phosphorus, hexavalent chromium, and a substantial amount of lead in the radiation shielding of the glass and lead solder used on wires and connections.

It's because of the recognized dangers of handling these components that E-recycling is more costly in the first world, and this is why the bulk of electronic waste is shipped to the developing world. Though China has specific and detailed laws designed to protect workers in hazardous industry, enforcement is either lax or non-existent. E-waste workers in Guiyu use bare hands to disassemble hazardous electronic detritus, soaking circuit boards in tubs of acid and heating motherboards over open fires to recover trace metals. Safety equipment is rarely present, and images of workers melting plastic off an IBM motherboard using a coal brazier, and sorting cathode tubes and microchips into plastic buckets, present an ironic juxtaposition of low and high-tech.

The health consequences to workers involved in processing high tech waste are many and varied. The toxic effects of lead to the kidneys, nervous and reproductive system are well known. Exposure to mercury contributes to brain and kidney damage, as well as being linked to birth defects. Barium can cause brain swelling, muscle weakness and damage the heart, liver and spleen, and dioxin is a known carcinogen. And then there are other elements found in E-waste; phosphorus, branded by the U.S. Navy as 'extremely toxic', and beryllium, recently classified as a human carcinogen, are both found inside of computer hardware.

Long-term health studies of China's E-waste workers have yet to be conducted. However, according to a report from the Medical Sciences College of Shantou University, health checkups of Guiyu's E-waste workers revealed that 88 percent of them suffered from skin diseases or had developed neurological, respiratory or digestive ailments. Furthermore, Greenpeace China reports that the majority of workers they spoke to while doing environmental studies in Guiyu complained of illnesses ranging from respiratory ailments to skin disease.

From Birth to Death: The High Cost of High Tech to Chinese Workers

China Labour Bulletin has long advocated increased health and safety protection for high-tech workers. In November 2004, CLB published a report on the U.S.-based semiconductor firm American Xtal Corporation, or AXT. The company had attracted a great deal of media scrutiny from 2000-2002 after it was discovered by California health officials that employees - primarily Chinese immigrants - at its Freemont, California plant had been exposed to extremely high levels of toxins.

Further investigations conducted by the California Department of Industrial Relations' Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) found no fewer than 42 violations of State health and safety code, and the company was fined US$313,655 for failing to take necessary preventive measures to protect its employees from dangerous exposure to gallium arsenide and a range of other toxic chemicals. In July of 2002, AXT began laying off its workers and gradually moving its production facilities to China. In July 2004, the company's California facilities closed down completely.

Upon hearing that AXT had set up shop in the Tongzhou district of Beijing under the name Beijing Tong Mei Xtal Technology, CLB's immediate concern was that the workers at the new factory would be exposed to the same level of toxic negligence as their counterparts had been at the now-defunct California plant. CLB promptly wrote a letter outlining our concerns and sent it by registered post to numerous Chinese government departments, including the Ministry of Health, the Beijing Department of Labour and Social Security and the State Administration of Work Safety, as well as to the All-China Federation of Trades Unions (ACFTU - China's sole legally permitted labour organization) and its Beijing municipal affiliate. Based on the available information, we stated that there were clear grounds for suspecting that a possible reason why AXT had relocated its production base to Beijing was to avoid any further monitoring and inspection by the California Department of Industrial Relations' Division of Occupational Safety and Health. To date, we have received no response from any of the above-mentioned government departments or official trade union bodies. Though the AXT situation may seem worlds removed from that of China's E-waste industry, CLB sees the birth and death ends of the high tech cycle as merely two sides of the same coin. The toxins, health risks, and systematic lack of regard for workers' health and safety are much the same at both ends of the industry.

Child Labour and Government Inaction Another aspect of the E-waste industry of particular concern to CLB is the reported presence of children in the workplace, both as dependants and as workers. Reports from Guiyu make frequent mention of young mothers sifting through toxic refuse dumps for salvageable materials with babies strapped to their backs. A 2002 article published in the People's Daily describes village households in which entire families are employed in E-waste work: In Chaoyang County in southern Guangdong Province - China's richest - whole farming families have turned into scavengers over the last decade for extra cash. Squatting in a ramshackle hut, six little girls hum as they swing hammers over their tiny shoulders, smashing computer chips. The smallest, four-year-old Yao Hong, deftly plucks shiny copper coil from the shattered components, straightens it and throws it into a bucket, oblivious to the possible dangers.

'We have no money,' said Yao's 70-year-old grandmother, holding up deeply lined palms. She calls out to the girls, all her granddaughters, reminding them to retrieve copper wires. Completely unprotected, without even basic safety goggles, the girls pound away and laugh as bits of metal and plastic fly.

According to an Associated Press report, many children in Guiyu have serious medical problems and there has been a marked surge in leukemia cases among children living in the town. However, the involvement of children in this notoriously hazardous occupation is unlikely to spur government action anytime soon. As the LA Times article cited earlier points out, local environmental groups feel a certain sense of helplessness in the face of government inability to crack down on the E-waste trade: 'This business has been a critical part of the local economy for about a decade. It's almost impossible to get rid of it overnight,' said Lai Yun, a member of the environmental group Greenpeace who has monitored the situation in Guiyu for several years.

In exchange for some cash, local officials look the other way, villagers say. 'The Communist Party doesn't care what we do, as long as they get money from us,' said a labourer from a village that specializes in recovering plastics. 'If we stopped doing this, we wouldn't be able to pay them anything.'

The Basel Convention

Two organizations working to stop the exportation of hazardous waste from the developed to the developing world are Greenpeace and the Basel Action Network (BAN) BAN gets its name from the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, also known as the Basel Convention, which in 1994 banned the export of hazardous waste. The United States has long resisted adopting the Basel rules, and as a result, up to 80 percent of discarded American electronic waste is exported to areas with less strictly enforced health and safety rules. Of this, a significant portion winds up in Guiyu.

China, a signatory to the Basel convention, was among the earliest global proponents for an international ban on the export of toxic wastes. Despite this, the Chinese government has been largely ineffective in keeping toxic waste from the West from washing up on the country's shores. The matter is naturally complicated by the fact that the E-waste industry, though clearly detrimental to Guiyu's environment, has become the area's economic lifeblood. This makes locals extremely reticent to do anything that might hamper their ability to profit from the importation of E-waste.

According to an article published by the Associated Press: Environmental authorities in Shantou, a city with jurisdiction over Guiyu, say they have launched five crackdowns over the last two years, shutting down hundreds of computer waste operations. But most quickly reopened, often with the help of village officials.

Environmentalists estimate the region now has some 2,500 computer waste businesses, mostly family-run. The industry may employ as many as 100,000 people, many of them migrants from elsewhere in China.

The same article delves into the nuts and bolts operation of one of these family businesses, run by a local man employing two dozen people stripping apart desktop PCs imported from California and Japan.

The man, who asked to be identified only by his surname Li, said he buys about 200 tons of computer waste a year from Taiwanese brokers for about $600 per ton. The waste is smuggled via the port of Nanhai and trucked to Guiyu.

Outside Li's dirt-floored workshop, workers used reed baskets to unload a truck full of hard drives, keyboards and PC bodies. Inside, workers ripped them apart with hammers and screwdrivers. Others sifted the debris for anything of value -- tiny nuts and screws, capacitors, high-grade plastic. In a smaller room, two women held green circuit boards over open coal fires. As the fumes of melting lead solder reddened their unprotected faces, they used pliers to pick off tiny black computer chips. The recovered parts were separated into burlap sacks. Li said he sells them by weight to buyers, mostly from Japan.

Li earns more than $12,000 a year, he said - 15 times the average rural salary in Guangdong. In a classic lose-lose situation, Mr. Li and other backyard E-waste entrepreneurs and their families are no doubt suffering from the same ill-health effects of constant exposure to toxic wastes as their workers experience.

Where there's Dirt there's Money

It's clear that no amount of regulation in China can fully stop the importation of illegal waste so long as it remains highly profitable. Furthermore, China's economic boom has created a large moneyed class whose members, like their counterparts in the west, are eager to have the newest, fastest and flashiest gadgets. Thus, even if the Chinese government were able to stop entirely the flow of E-waste from overseas, the amount produced domestically will still grow exponentially. While Guiyu is considered the major E-waste centre of China, according to research conducted by Greenpeace China, Zhejiang province's Taizhuou city is emerging as another major E-waste processing site. This makes finding safer ways to disassemble, recycle and store old electronic products all the more critical.

Organizations like BAN and Greenpeace are working aggressively to address the problem from its inception, encouraging manufacturers of electronic products both to reduce as much as possible the amount of toxins that go into their products and to take active responsibility for recycling their products once they have reached the end of their useful lives. In a telephone interview with CLB, Robert Gutierrez of the Basel Action Network confirmed the close correlation between environmental protection and worker protection where the handling of E-waste is concerned.

'One of the main keys is manufacturer taking responsibility. As long as toxins are put into products, there will always be a risk to worker's health and safety.' Said Mr. Gutierrez, adding 'When a company conducts recycling in a proper way, there's a probability that they're protecting workers as well.'

China Labour Bulletin fully supports BAN's position that manufacturers should take responsibility for assuring that their products are designed as toxin-free as possible, and that wherever the inclusion of toxic substances is unavoidable, the health and safety of those working on both ends of the product life cycle should be given the highest priority. Further, we believe that China's increasing role as both major producer and consumer of high tech items provides a good opportunity for China to take a leadership role in reducing the toxicity inherent in high tech production, both at the assembly and dismantling/recycling stages of the process.

Workers' Health and Safety - a Union Issue At its core, the issue of E-waste workers is one of occupational health and safety. Article 52 of the PRC Labour Law clearly states that The employing unit must establish and perfect the system for occupational safety and health, strictly implement the rules and standards of the State on occupational safety and health, educate labourers on occupational safety and health, prevent accidents in the process of work, and reduce occupational hazards.

So E-waste workers are at least nominally protected under Chinese law. The key problem is widespread lack of enforcement of the applicable health and safety laws. But since the majority of E-waste workers are rural migrants, the issue of protecting their health and safety is closely intertwined with that of protecting this socially marginalized group more generally. In November 2004, the vice-chairman of the ACFTU, Zhang Junjiu, proposed establishing 'a long-term mechanism' to protect migrant workers' legitimate rights and interests, including the right to occupational health and safety. Around the same time, the ACFTU announced that China's migrant workers would henceforth be allowed to join the official trade union (a dubious privilege, perhaps, but one they had previously been denied.) The occupational health and safety problems in China's E-waste processing industry offer an excellent opportunity for the ACFTU to begin taking a more active interest in the working conditions of the country's migrant workforce as a whole.

Ultimately, the trade union issue lies at the heart of any real solution to this and similar occupational health and safety problems in China. As CLB's director Han Dongfang has noted, 'No matter from which angle we examine the issue of health and safety at work, there is one inescapable common denominator: namely that the status of workers themselves remains passive. Clearly lacking in the traditional approach to workplace health and safety in China is direct worker participation.' The same principle applies to the situation of coal miners in China, who are dying in their thousands each year because mine owners place profit before basic workplace safety and so refuse to allow workers to get organized, and to that of rural migrant workers and their families who are exposed on a daily and hourly basis to hazardous toxins while tearing apart old computers by hand. Both groups of workers, indeed all those engaged in inherently dangerous occupations in China, need an organized voice in order to remain safe and healthy at work. If the ACFTU is unwilling or unable to perform this organizing role, then China's E-waste workers should be allowed to undertake it for themselves. Only thus will they and their families have any real hope of being protected from the myriad hazards inherent in their trade.

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