Monday, April 11, 2011

Child Labor in E-Waste

The basis of environmental injustice is the unfair exposure of the defenseless to environmental harm. Perhaps there is no greater injustice than impoverished children around the world who earn pennies a day scavenging scrap metals from heaps of electronic (e-)waste. As part of the so-called informal recycling network, children as young as five years old work full days in the presence of toxic metals and dangerous chemical solvents without basic health and safety precautions. What social and economic conditions allow this problem to exist? What obstacles need surmounting to remedy child labor in e-waste? Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry1 provides some reasons and insight.

Old televisions are broken up for parts in Tijuana, Mexico. Used batteries are hammered apart for metals recovery in Dhaka, Bangladesh2. Circuit board scrap metal is collected in Delhi, India. Circuit boards are disassembled in Guiyu, China. Rural migrants travel to cities in hopes of better jobs and are absorbed into e-waste recycling because the skills needed for entry are low. Dealers often provide shelter for workers who have nowhere else to go. Both parents’ low wages in factories or scrap yards often do not cover the family’s basic needs, so the children are sent to work, too.

Producers of electronics avoid responsibility for their waste by passing liability along with the physical e-waste from formal to informal networks (p.237). Disposal costs are externalized in illegal exports, creating disincentives for toxics elimination during production (p.230). On the importer side, weaker economies lack institutional capacities for protecting workers (p.229). Hazardous e-waste work occurs in unregistered, often hidden parts of industrial or residential areas and is difficult to regulate. Although employing children is illegal nearly everywhere, local authorities do not enforce the laws because they understand child workers supply cheap labor for employers.

International agreements have done little to stop the harmful practices of child labor in e-waste. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, tariffs on importing used computer equipment were eliminated in 1994 (p.158). In the same year, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Disposal Ban Amendment called for the halt of all exports of hazardous wastes from developed to developing countries (p.227). However, a well-established and lucrative system of international trading in e-wastes still exists and is supported by dealers, international banking, shipping, customs, recycling industry associations, and electronics industry bodies. Government bans on exporting/importing of e-wastes cannot do much because of weak enforcement capacity.

The e-waste situation requires creative solutions on the producer side. Market-based instruments emphasizing the “polluter-pays principle,”3 like steep e-waste taxes, would encourage electronics producers to design alternatives to toxics in their products. Extended producer responsibility policies would also help internalize costs, potentially reducing downstream impacts on the e-waste trade and child laborers.

~Mark Bremer, Green Explored Contributor
[1] Smith, T., Sonnenfeld, D., Pellow, D. Hightower, J (2006). Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry. Temple University Press. Philadelphia, Pa.
[2] Nick Owens. Children of the Black Hole. Sunday Mirror. 9/9/07.
[3] Carter, Neil (2007). The politics of the environments: ideas, activism, policy. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, UK. p.332-3.