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The high cost of calling

From its sourcing of materials to its disposal of toxic waste, with the whole production process in between, the mobile phone business is repeating the same discredited practices as longer established industries. Dave Sambrook reports

May 1, 2007
5 min read

You would have had to be living on another planet to have failed to notice how the portable descendant of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention has transformed our society in recent years. And yet few of us have any idea that exploitation of workers, environmental damage and involvement in the arms trade are just some of the hidden extras that come with mobile telephones.

It was during the 1980s that the cellular phone first came to our attention – remember the images of yuppies flaunting phones the size of car batteries – and in the years since they have become the most common personal accessory since the wristwatch.

The industry is dominated by a small number of very powerful global players, with Nokia and Motorola accounting for nearly 60 per cent of the global market, and SonyEricsson, Samsung, and LG Electronics controlling around 20 per cent. Despite many of its markets reaching saturation point – over 90 per cent of western Europeans have access to a mobile phone – the industry grew by a remarkable 24.7 per cent in 2006, shipping more than a billion handsets globally.

In November last year, the Dutch-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), published The High Cost of Calling. This in-depth report clearly shows that as a relatively new industry, mobile phone manufacturers rely on the same discredited practices as their counterparts in longer-established sectors.

In the countries where most of the world’s mobile telephones are manufactured, China, India, Thailand, and the Philippines, the depressingly familiar case studies include the use of child labour, compulsory unpaid overtime for ‘unskilled’ workers, no legal right for workers to organise or strike, and horrific breaches of the most basic health and safety standards.

Perhaps the worst example of the latter was discovered at a mobile phone lens production facility, Hivac Startech Film Window (Shenzhen), where lenses for the cameras on Motorola’s phones were produced. Ventilation in the plant was rarely utilised despite the range of chemicals used in the manufacturing process and nine workers were hospitalised with poisoning. One of the workers affected was forced to terminate her pregnancy on doctor’s advice; a termination that could have been avoided had the company dealt with the issue when workers first raised it more than six months earlier.

Motorola had little choice but to investigate the matter and eventually accepted that not only had the poisoning taken place but that it was as a result of their supplier’s practices.

‘Hivac is just one factory amongst thousands,’ says Joseph Wilde, one of the report’s coauthors. ‘And Motorola’s response is symptomatic of the very ad hoc approach the mobile phone manufacturers have to dealing with these issues.’

Wilde is frustrated that although the companies involved claim to have investigated and improved the issues raised in the report, they have refused to involve local independent stakeholders in the development or monitoring of corrective actions and are unwilling to provide any documentation or evidence as to what has really been done.

‘There is a need for structural changes in policy and practices in the industry, particularly in how companies deal with selecting and monitoring suppliers from which they procure mobile phone components,’ he says. ‘Their focus is heavily weighted towards price and quality and not enough attention is being paid to social and environmental factors.’

Needless to say, SOMO’s recommendations for an industrywide strategy to eliminate disreputable practices have fallen on deaf ears. It is a situation that Jim Puckett, co-ordinator of the Basel Action Network (BAN), can empathise with.

BAN faced a brick wall from the industry’s lead body, CTIA, the International Association for the Wireless Technology Industry, when the group argued that exporting mobiles from saturated markets to poorer countries for parts was the equivalent of exporting hazardous waste. As such, BAN argued, it should be subject to the controls of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.

‘The cell phone industry lobbied very hard for exemptions from the established rules governing global trade in toxic waste,’ says Puckett. ‘It became clear that the grand design of many of the mobile phone carriers was to transfer the cell phone disposal problem to developing countries, even in contravention of international law.’

The industry has also been under attack for its sourcing of materials. A 2004 report by the Ethical Consumer’s online guide, ethiscore.org, slated mobile phone manufacturers for sourcing coltan, an integral ingredient in the manufacture of mobile phone, from warlords in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as for their universal connections to the arms industry.

It is clear that there’s much more to mobile phone manufacturers than the friendly facilitators of communication they like to paint themselves as.

Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO)

Basel Action Network

Ethical Consumer magazine\’s online shopping guide

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